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Drought Strikes Again

While other areas of the country recover from recent drought, parts of the Northern Plains in midsummer now stagger under hot and dry conditions stalling grass growth and cutting winter feed short.

Worst hit are western South Dakota and eastern Montana, with North Dakota sitting at the bull’s eye of the brutally dry conditions. “As of mid-July, 30% of the state is experiencing extreme drought; 18% is in severe drought, and 20% is experiencing moderate drought,” says Adnan Akyuz, a climatologist at North Dakota State University.

The drought caught cattle producers off guard, coming as it did seemingly out of nowhere, following hard on the heels of a winter with near record-breaking snowfall.

“Because of all the snow, we were expecting a good growing season,” says purebred Angus breeder Richard Fast, New Salem, North Dakota. “The second week of April we were branding cattle, and it rained for two hours. Then it sleeted, and it seemed like winter and all its snow were never going to end. Well, it ended! And it quit so fast it left a person wondering, who turned off the water!”

The 77 inches of snow that fell on the Fasts’ ranch did little good for the spring growing season. 

“Last fall we had no moisture in the ground, and when the first big snowfall came in late November, it kept the ground from freezing up,” says Fast. “When spring came, all the snowmelt soaked deep into the soil profile.”

That, combined with little to no spring rainfall, left some pastures and hayfields without grass growth. “The four-month period from March through June of 2017 was the seventh-driest period of that same time frame in North Dakota’s recorded history,” says Akyuz.

Indeed, the minimal or no plant growth in some settings caused some producers to note similarities in the conditions to those of the historic drought spanning the 1980s.

“Back then, everybody summer fallowed fields black,” says Fast. “We saw ground just blowing away. After the 1980s, we knew we had to get our place drought-proofed.”

For the next decade, the Fasts implemented a drought-proofing strategy. On pastureland, they set up cross fencing for rotational grazing. Abandoning the use of stock dams, they installed deep wells and ran underground pipeline to pastures.

“We spent a lot of money doing all that, but the system is paying big dividends this summer,” he says. “Because of it, we’ll get through the summer, and we might make it one more year, if the drought continues. If we can give pastures a rest for even just one month, they’ll rebound to some extent with just .10 inch of rain. We’re better situated to handle drought than we’ve ever been before.”

Many other producers are less fortunate, forced to sell cows because of no grass or because of stock dams either run dry or holding water gone bad. “This time of year our single weekly sale normally offers 500 head of sale cattle,” says Larry Schnell, longtime manager and co-owner of Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange, Dickinson, North Dakota. “But since the first week of June we’ve been selling 2,600 head of cattle each week.”

Like other livestock auctions across the region, Schnell’s sale barn is as of midsummer holding a couple of sales a week. “By year’s end, the cowherd in western North Dakota could be reduced by as much as 25% to 50%,” he says.

Cull Before Winter

Before winter, Fast plans on selling cows, too, because of tight winter feed supplies. “We expect to be able to harvest only about half the amount of hay that we normally put up,” he says. “In the spring we planted oats for hay, but it looks like it won’t be worth harvesting. We’ll have to cut back on the number of cattle we carry over winter.”

The Fasts will cull cows by enforcing a stringent synchronization program. After the first synchronized breeding by artificial insemination (A.I.), they’ll heat detect and breed a second time any females coming into estrus.

“Last year we had an 85% conception rate from two cycles of A.I.,” says Fast. “After the A.I. period, we typically follow up by turning good herd sires with the cows. But this year, we’re going to pregnancy check by ultrasound in August, and we’ll sell any cows that have not conceived to the A.I. breedings.”

On the bright side, enforcing such stringent standards on the cows shrinks the herd of course, but it also strengthens herd fertility. “Being forced to sell cattle seems like a curse, but it can be blessing, too, over the long run,” says Fast. “It gives all of us producers a chance to clean up the herd, and we’ll have better cattle because of it.”

While some culling may be inevitable, finding innovative ways to keep a base cowherd together during a drought is always paramount. “Producers might start looking at which grain crops could be harvested for feed,” says John Dhuyvetter, North Dakota State University livestock specialist.

“Weaning calves early and sending them to a feedlot is always an option,” he says. “Finding sources of by-product feeds could help. And even sending cows away to feedlots for custom feeding could be a way to keep the base herd intact.”

Fast believes in the resiliency of cattle people. “We’ll figure this out, and we’ll get through it,” he says. “We’ll find ways to keep some quality cattle back, and we’ll spend a few years rebuilding from there. It can be a new beginning.”

A Coping Strategy

Severe drought hit Oklahoma in 2011 through 2013, causing a 17% liquidation of the state’s beef cowherd in 2011 and 2012. Herds have since been rebuilt.

“During a drought, it is critical for producers to make contingency plans early and be proactive in making decisions,” says Derrell Peel, livestock marketing economist at Oklahoma State University. “A strategy of just hanging on another week or month or trying to feed your way out of a drought without making other changes is a recipe for potential long-term damage to land, forage resources, and the financial health of the operation.”

Develop a priority list for selling cattle. Open and old cows might be at the top of the list. Set deadlines for the liquidation of these.

“The most important thing is for producers to make an action plan based on a continuation or worsening of conditions,” says Peel. “Make timely decisions based on a realistic assessment of resources such as forage, labor, and finances.”

Acting proactively can preserve the health of grasslands, the fertility of the cowherd, and the financial sustainability of the operation.

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