Ranchers cut cattle herds as drought reduces pasture, forage supplies
DEVILS LAKE — A steady stream of cattle from farms and ranches across North Dakota stepped out of stock trailers and into corrals at Lake Region Livestock Co. on Tuesday as drought conditions forced producers to reduce their herd numbers.
The livestock auction is selling from 800 to 1,000 head of cattle weekly, more than double the number it sold twice a month before the drought.
“We draw from a big area: I-94 to the Canadian border and from Minot to the (Red) River,” said Jim Ziegler, Lake Region Livestock Co. owner.
“In May, they started selling replacement quality heifers they normally would have kept,” said Ziegler, who bought the auction company in 1988. Livestock producers also are selling old cows and cows that don’t have calves, instead of holding them for another year.
Fortunately for farmers and ranchers selling cattle, there is good demand from livestock auction buyers, and prices are decent. At least so far.
“The rest of the United States is glad to have access to what we need to get rid of,” Ziegler said. That’s in contrast to a few years ago, when Oklahoma and Texas were in a drought and the liquidation of cattle herds saturated the market, weighing on prices.
Nine hundred and fifty to 1,150 cattle sold as slaughter animals are garnering an average sales price of about $1,000, and cow-calf pairs are selling for $1,600 to $1,800, Ziegler said.
Joe Bohl, a rancher from Rugby, watched cattle trot through the Lake Region Livestock sales ring on Tuesday, June 29, as he waited to sell the bull he hauled to the auction.
Bohl had a birds-eye view to watch the cattle from his perch about a half dozen rows above the floor of the sawdust-covered ring. Across the ring from Bohl, auctioneer Cliff Sanders handled the bidding while Marsha Duchsherer, auction clerk, recorded the sales.
Bohl sold only a single bull on Tuesday. But earlier this spring, he put up 50 black Angus heifers that other years he would have kept until January and sold as breeding stock.
After carefully building up his commercial herd for the past 40 years by selecting quality bulls and cows, it’s tough to part with the cattle. However, a potential feed shortage left him without another option. Bohl’s pastures are dried up, and the first cutting of his 300-plus acres of grass and alfalfa hayland yielded a fraction of what it usually does.
“Out of all my ground, this time I got a hundred bales,” Bohl said. That’s less than 15% of the number of bales he usually gets.
In dry years, sloughs are a typical Plan B for haying. But even those wet spots have dried up, said Alben Jallo, who sat in the chair next to Bohl at the auction.
“We didn’t drain our sloughs. We knew they would be good in dry times,” said Jallo, who has cows on his farm near Fordville, N.D. This year, though, the grass in the sloughs is dead and only cattails remain.
“In my lifetime, by far this is the driest situation we ever had to deal with,” said Bohl, 65. Only 1.6 inches of rain has fallen on his farm, 15 miles east of Rugby, this year.
“I think we’re in the bullseye of being the driest,” he said.
He has some hay carried over from 2020, but is downsizing his herd because he’s trying to conserve his supply so he will have enough to feed his remaining cattle this winter. Instead of feeding his 2021 calves until February as he usually does, Bohl likely will sell them in September.
Meanwhile, he may be forced to sell more of his cows if the drought doesn’t break soon. The price of feed is just too high to justify feeding the entire herd through the fall and early winter, Bohl said.
“I do have some carryover to get most of my cows through the winter, but I don’t have enough to get them all through,’ he said.
His is not a unique situation in the Rugby area.
“I would say every rancher has had to sell some,” he said.
Jim Ludwig, a cattle producer from New Rockford, N.D., was one of them. He was selling three cows at the sale and is feeding 30 cow-calf pairs because pastures are so short. He hopes for rain that will rejuvenate his pastures, but it looks like that’s not in the forecast, he said.
“The next 30 days (forecast) is for above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation,” Ludwig said.
Bohl and Jallo aren’t just concerned about their only livelihoods, but also the hit their sons will take as a result of selling off some of their cattle. Not only are they sacrificing future income, but they’re watching the genetic traits they’ve worked to build up over the years walk out the sales ring door.
“Those are the guys that are going to be hurt,” Jallo said.
Said Bohl: “That’s the hard part. … 40 to 50 years of genetics.”