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Rugby Livestock Auction begins 2022 with ‘cautious optimism’

Cattle trucks unload in a snow-covered parking lot at Rugby Livestock Auction Jan. 2. Sue Sitter/PCT

The Rugby Livestock Auction held its first sale of 2022 Jan. 3 with what staffers called “cautious optimism.”

The optimism showed when sellers and buyers stopped in the office to chat about the two-foot-deep piles of snow lining the roads to Rugby. According to information from weather.gov, from December 2020 to early January 2021, barely an inch had accumulated in the area. By contrast, more than a foot of snow had fallen in the same one-month period as of early 2022. However, the 12.69 inches of snow measured as of Jan. 3 2022 was more than six inches less than the 19.71 inches normally expected for the period.

“This year is very different from last. It’s mainly because the moisture this year. It’s not a lot of moisture, but it’s more than last year,” said Brenda Heilman, a former owner of the auction who handles administrative duties in the office.

Heilman said more than 89,000 head of cattle had come through Rugby Livestock Auction in 2021. During the summer, Heilman and owner Cliff Mattson said the number of cattle moving through the auction had set records.

Summer sales kept staffers busy when much of North Dakota sat in the grip of extreme and exceptional drought. With little to no hay to feed their cattle, ranchers asked their state government representatives to waive rules for hauling water and feed. Ranchers from other regions with more moisture sometimes helped to supply hay. Still, some operations sold off their herds, unable to survive the tough market and weather conditions.

Although 2022 began with a sense of hope for many, Mattson and Heilman said they saw sales trends from 2021 continuing.

“What we’re seeing is the calves are coming to town sooner than they would normally come. That’s the main thing we’re seeing this time of year,” Heilman said of the influx of feeder cattle.

Heilman said it was too early to tell whether or not ranchers would consider rebuilding herds.

“When we have fancy heifer sales, those usually happen at the end of February through early March, those replacement heifers can go into a herd,” Heilman said. “The calves they’re selling here today are going to a feedlot. Most end up out of state. Very few of them will stay (in the area).”

Heilman said of the outlook for 2022, “February, March, April, we’ll have a better idea.”

“A few (local ranchers) bought bred cows or heifers in December, but we sold almost 26,000 cows last year,” Heilman noted.  “Nobody’s bought 26,000 cows back. So, we’re not anywhere close to replacing what we sold last year, and we’re just one sale barn.”

Mattson said the small number of ranchers who bought back cattle “had sold cows last year and found they had extra feed. But a lot of guys haven’t started building back this year. They’ll build more in the spring when they get closer to the grass coming in, because they don’t have enough feed to get there yet.”

“We’re optimistic that with the snow we’re getting now and the rain we got last fall, there will be some grass. That’s the biggest thing now, being able to get them through until grass,” Mattson added.

“There are a lot of people who are hanging on, but there are still dispersal sales, too,” Mattson noted. “On our next bred cow sale we’ll have, we have some dispersals. They’re smaller deals, but the last bigger sale we had, there were more dispersals. It’s mostly because of feed. There are guys who are getting rid of their best cows because they don’t have enough feed to get them to grass.”

Mattson said it wasn’t unusual for calves to go to auction in winter, however, since the drought began, “it’s the bred cows that are going to town. Our slaughter numbers are up because a lot more people are getting rid of them because they don’t have enough feed to feed them,” he said.

“Normally, they wouldn’t get rid of a lot of their cows, even though they’re getting old, they’d still keep them and a lot of people are getting rid of their older, good cows because they have no feed and they have to get rid of something (to scale back their operations), so they’re getting rid of them,” Mattson said.

However, Mattson added, “Overall, so far, I think people are more optimistic this year.”

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