Like death and taxes, drought in the Plains and truthfully much of the world, is a given. It will happen……sooner or later. Perhaps it’s just the way of the world, or perhaps there’s significant climate change on the move. Either way, drought is difficult, if not impossible at times, to deal with if one is a livestock producer.
It seems that 2017 has been our year here in the Northern Plains, the year that will go down in history as quite likely the worst drought in over 100 years for many locations. For us, in western North Dakota, it meant that our pastures didn’t leave dormancy in the spring. The not so lovely brownish shade of winter grass became the standard for May, June, and on into July. The once lush hay fields that should have been ready to cut barely had enough growth to make it worth turning the cows into them to harvest what little they could. Certainly, there was no reason to attempt to glean a small amount of hay from many fields with expensive haying equipment…. the cost was prohibitive.
With temperatures hovering in the high 90’s and the never-ending wind blowing, hay suppliers took the opportunity to adjust their prices upward as well. Suddenly, for anyone that didn’t have enough hay in reserve following the drastically cold winter of 2016-2017, the cost of doing business was rapidly increasing. Add to that the 2016 cattle market which had been the poorest in a very long time and one had a bleak picture quite well painted for the livestock industry. No grass, no affordable hay, crops struggling and no rain in sight becomes a tragic situation for ranchers rather quickly.
Making decisions when faced with a disaster of these proportions is difficult to nearly impossible. As one person wrote in their comments, “There is no such thing as a good decision in this kind of situation. One only decides how much BAD one can live with, and move on.” I think that became the thought held foremost in many minds. “How much bad can we live with?”
Culling herds, reducing numbers, weaning earlier than usual, moving cattle frequently from pasture to pasture, sending breeding stock to a feedlot, utilizing CRP acres for haying or grazing….all of this figures into the management decisions we need to make. Having an ag lender that will work with the borrower is crucial.
As summer took its toll on the Plains, the inevitable wild fires started both on the Plains and in the mountainous areas of the West. The resultant devastation will be felt for years . . . losses to ranchers, wildlife, and to our environment are huge. I’m not at all certain which path to prevention of wildfires needs to be taken, but certainly, there needs to be a better plan than the one that has been in place. But, I digress. The article about wildfires is to be written on another day.
Will ranchers survive all this devastation? Some will, and, sadly, some will not. Sometimes the financial burden just becomes overwhelming, and no matter how much love, time, blood, sweat, and tears has gone into a ranch, there’s no fixing the financial end of it. For that, I am very sad. It’s a loss that can’t be counted in dollars and cents.
Through this past year, I’ve filed a large assortment of paperwork in my ‘drought file.’ And the year isn’t over yet, so I’m sure more will be added. However, I’ll share some of what I’ve decided to put to use for our ranch. Please feel free to add in the comments choices that you have made to somehow paint a less than bleak future for your livestock.
First things first. We sold the cows that needed to be sold. If they were bad tempered, older, crawled the fences, or had even looked at us sideways, they went to town….early. The market was just starting to drop significantly so that beating wasn’t too serious. Secondly, we divided them into the smallest groups possible and made a doable plan about where and when each group would be moved as the drought lingered on……. from hay field, to pasture, back to hay field, and then to another pasture and finally to the wheat stubble after harvest. Before they went out to pasture all vaccinations were updated, parasite control product applied topically and internal wormer given to cows. In a limited feed availability situation, it didn’t pay to feed a parasite. They were supplemented with 15% protein all-natural cow cake, had free choice salt and mineral. Over all, they did well.
I spent many hours during the summer putting together a plan that would work for us. Due to the extreme cost of hay and hay delivery, we decided to send our breeding stock to a feedlot. Once that decision was in place, cutting, raking and baling every possible blade of grass we could find became a priority . . . along with attempting to find affordable forage to purchase.
Wheat straw has proven to become a staple for cows this winter when they come home from the feedlot. Fed in conjunction with some high-quality hay, it meets their nutritional requirements. The horses will fall graze on old bluestem high on the hillsides until the snow gets too deep………they’ll be supplemented with pelleted feed which is another staple in a drought……high quality protein that is easy to feed, that animals won’t waste.
Over all, we hope to survive to ranch another year. Another drought may change our minds,,,,but for now, we’re going to hold that thought……of rainfall coming in abundance for 2018 and beyond. Disaster of any kind will lay bare some truths that probably aren’t thought about each day for many of us. …….. Things like who some people really are, what matters most in life, change is inevitable, and most of all, at the end of the day, to share the burden with God as you understand Him because it’s bigger than you can carry alone.
High on my list of helpful organizations in this past summer are Farm Rescue Service based out of Horace, ND., Michigan Farm Relief, our local FSA Office, Farm Credit Service, NDSU Extension, Facebook pages devoted to hay hauling and sales, and North Dakota Department of Agriculture. Networking is THE most important factor in dealing with drought related problems I believe…..talking to another person who has ‘been there’ is helpful because sometimes it is pathetically difficult to clearly see the facts when the cloud of doubt and panic sets in.
Today, life giving rain is falling on the Northern Plains. Hopefully fires to the west are extinguished by this wonderful moisture. The problems from Drought 2017 aren’t even close to being brought to closure, but today thoughts tend to drift toward another season of ranching.
We’re going to add links and ads from various businesses that can help you with your plan for drought management going forward. Please feel free to contact them, mention us at Horses of the West when you do. We would appreciate that!