Ranchers look for ways to survive drought of ‘17

Turtle Lake rancher Troy Presser has been making plans to sell part of his herd next month as the drought of 2017 creates an increasingly bleak picture for the grazing season.

It’s not the driest year he’s encountered in ranching. But Presser said the inevitability in the past was easier to react to than this year’s minimal rains that have been just enough to keep false hope alive.

“It was like a sinking ship,” he said. “This has been continually plugging holes in a boat. But it’s still sinking. It’s kind of been disheartening at times.”

McLean County Extension Agent Calandria Edwards said the northern part of the county has been especially hit hard because it was dry going to winter. Although the snow helped, grasses were starting to show strain already in early spring, she said.

She wasn’t aware of any ranchers turning to the Conservation Reserve Program now that it has been opened to ranchers.

“That doesn’t necessarily help if the CRP is in just as bad condition,” she said.

Some ranchers in the region are buying hay and others are considering baling winter wheat or other small grain crops to get through this year.

Presser said some neighbors already have claimed insurance on dried up crops, and where nitrate levels haven’t gotten too high, they have turned their cattle out on the fields. In a normal year, he uses his pastures and crop residues for grazing as late as December before turning to stored hay. That could be challenging this year, given the pasture situation and a spotty corn stand.

Presser, who ranches north of Mercer in McLean County, said his pasture grass looked good this spring but it didn’t take long for his cows to graze it down.

“And it just never came back,” he said. The three inches of rain from the end of May through June hasn’t been enough.

“It’s turned green but it’s not growing. It looks pretty from the road but it’s not much different than a golf course for height,” Presser said.

The first alfalfa cutting in mid-June ran about 40 percent of last year’s first-cut production. Presser said they are hoping for one more good rain to get a second cutting.

“Grass is the thing I am going to run out of. I have enough hay supplies to carry me over for this winter. I am just not going to have enough grass for all my cattle,” he said.

In early July, he was looking for a partner to hold a late August cattle sale, after calf weaning is done. He hoped to sell about half his cows, keeping his first-calf and bred heifers.

Williams County Extension Agent Danielle Steinhoff said ranchers there put their cattle to pasture earlier this spring because of a hay shortage caused by last year’s dry conditions. That’s put pressure on the pastures.

Most ranchers still have pasture not yet grazed, but they may need to rotate to those fresh pastures earlier than normal, Steinhoff said. Without additional rain, pastures may not be adequate to sustain herds through the summer. It’s particularly important now as the warm season grasses are coming up, she said.

She said some ranchers are buying hay, although the extent of the drought conditions is going to mean looking out farther geographically to find hay available as the season goes on. She advises ranchers who buy hay to have it tested for nitrates, which grasses can accumulate when conditions are dry.

“There can be a pretty high toxicity level and cattle can get sick and die from it. Horses are even more susceptible,” she said.

Severe drought conditions led the State Water Commission to reactivate the Drought Disaster Livestock Water Supply Project Assistance Program. Eligible livestock producers in drought proclamation counties may qualify for up to $3,500 in cost-share assistance to develop new water supplies.

The 26 eligible counties are Adams, Billings, Bowman, Burke, Burleigh, Divide, Dunn, Emmons, Golden Valley, Grant, Hettinger, Kidder, McHenry, McKenzie, McLean, Mercer, Morton, Mountrail, Oliver, Renville, Sheridan, Sioux, Slope, Stark, Ward and Williams.

Ranchers affected by drought also are eligible to receive payments under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Livestock Forage Disaster Program. At the end of June, ranchers in 15 North Dakota counties were eligible.

The USDA approved emergency haying of CRP acres beginning July 16. This approval enables emergency haying in counties experiencing drought conditions. Interested producers should contact their local Farm Service Agency office to access eligible acres.

Additionally, USDA is providing producers with FSA loans a 12-month exemption from a requirement that they have physical control of their livestock. This exemption will allow ranchers to weather the drought by moving their livestock to feedlots or other states where they have feed, forage and water, before taking back physical control at a later date.

The drought is expected to affect ranch incomes and reduce cow numbers in the state.

“We will start seeing people selling cows they would have normally kept at this point,” Edwards said, indicating that will have implications going forward. Ranchers could find themselves later in a rebuilding phase, with possibly less seed stock readily available, she said.