Rolling on relief? Government monitors, reports on drought

FARGO, N.D. -- Farmers and ranchers in western North Dakota still are suffering from drought despite recent rains. Grass is very short and stockwater in dams is very low and dry in places.

FARGO, N.D. -- Farmers and ranchers in western North Dakota still are suffering from drought despite recent rains. Grass is very short and stockwater in dams is very low and dry in places.

Officials say the rains will have an effect of making the case for federal help more difficult.

In its second meeting on June 10, members of North Dakota's Agricultural Drought Task Force voted unanimously to recommend to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow grazing statewide on Conservation Reserve Program land -- only for farmers and ranchers within the severest drought areas, as well as contiguous counties.

The state already had instituted help to cost-share the bringing of water to pastures -- things such as well drilling and pipeline work.

"Water holes are still dry because of no snow runoff and drought conditions," says Jeff Knudson, a top department staffer.


Despite the recent moisture, drought is still a high-priority problem.

"We've been selling cow-calf pairs," says Larry Schnell, owner-manager of Stockmen's Livestock Exchange in Dickinson, N.D. "We've only had a couple of people that we've sold the 'best end' of their herd. I'll tell you, as an auctioneer, it's not the easiest thing in the world to sell cattle, even at a tremendous price and look at a guy and see (pause) tears running down his face. This is serious business. This is people's livelihoods, and they take it seriously."

Meanwhile, a separate North Dakota Extension Service Drought Task Force is continuing to meet every two weeks, with a conference call based in Fargo, N.D., linking county and area agents throughout the state.

"Most of the state outside Cass County has been very, very dry and also cool," says Tim Petry, a North Dakota State University Extension Service livestock marketing specialist who co-chairs the extension task force with Greg Lardy, an NDSU extension beef cattle specialist and professor. After the extension conference call June 6, Petry said much of the state had received beneficial rains in the preceding two weeks.

"We have a weather problem up here," Petry says. "On a U.S. basis, North Dakota is the driest of any other state. Most of the rest of the country is in better shape, precipitationwise. I'm not sure how politics comes into the mix on this."

Diluting political support?

While the recent, general rains have been good, there is a fear that it could lessen the political support for drought relief, even as impacts are still there. The smaller the drought area is, the fewer members of Congress have a political stake in the issue. Petry says ranchers were starting to move cattle onto pastures that had started to green up, but the pastures provided "way below-normal production" thus far.

Where it had been dry in the Bottineau, N.D., area, farmers had received a half-inch in the past two weeks. In the parched southwest, ranchers had picked up 2 to 3 inches. In the northeast, it was still dry in many areas.


There are two big concerns, even if it continues raining and there is pasture recovery, Petry says:

  • Stock dam water. Most of the state where livestock production is the heaviest had seen rains quit in July of last year.

"They went into the winter extremely dry, with ponds that are quite low," Petry says.
The little rains that have come so far have soaked in and haven't run off to fill the ponds.

"Producers are scrambling with cattle and sheep going out on pasture," Petry says. "Some don't have water. That's likely to continue the rest of the season. It would take a 5- to 6-inch rain in an hour or so to run off so we'd have stock dam water."

  • Winter forage. Because of the cool weather, forages are not as developed as normal.

"Even if we get above-normal moisture from here on, producers are going to have less hay to make," Petry says.
Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer did open up the CRP for making hay, but that will be after Aug. 2, and by that time, the quality and even the quantity both are down.

"Normally, you'd have alfalfa, brome and crested wheatgrass that would be of higher quality to mix with CRP grass. This year, those crops are going to be very short, both in quality and quantity," he says.

It is not known whether Schafer will approve the early grazing of CRP. Petry notes that the Aug. 2 CRP haying, approved by Schafer, is not because of drought, but because of the high cost of feed grains -- corn and other feedstocks.

Weighing in on the positive side of the feed equation is that there are more crop byproducts, particularly distiller's grains, that are now available in the region. DDGs can be mixed with low-quality CRP to upgrade the quality.

Also, small grains are looking better than they did in late May, so there's a chance there will be straw that can be baled and supplemented with DDGs.


"All are things producers are going to have to do to try to get by," Petry says.

He says hay acres are down nationwide because of high crop prices.

"Hay prices are at record-high levels, and they are likely to stay that way," he says. "High-quality hay is still going to be very high-priced."

Dwight Aakre, an Extension Service farm management specialist, says it isn't clear how much of the DDGs produced in North Dakota will be available locally, but plants in the eastern part of the state will have more than nearby livestock can consume, enough livestock nearby to "touch" the capacity.

"It's going to have to be moved out," he says.

But DDGs will play a small part in alleviating feed needs because of the drought, he says.

"What's really needed is more forage because of the quantity needed. They've got to figure out how to get hay up -- either from a second crop, or volunteer, or whatever."

Petry says that with high energy costs, ethanol plants may be willing to partially dry DDGs and deliver more locally. He says producers probably should contact ethanol plants to make arrangements, even if they don't need the product until fall.

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