Drought forces ranchers to make tough decision

A pair of cows on the auction block
Continued dry weather in cattle country is forcing farmers and ranchers to reduce their herds. Lack of rain is burning off pasture land used as a food source.
MPR Photo/Bob Reha

It's a clear calm day at the West Fargo sales barn. Cattle are prodded and shoved from the holding pens outside the barn, into the sales arena.

Kory Scorby has worked at the West Fargo sales barn for the last 13 years. Scorby says the dry weather is burning up pasture land in the region.

Kory Sorby
Kory Sorby manages the sale barn in West Fargo, North Dakota.
MPR Photo/Bob Reha

"A linoleum floor will have more to eat on then what them cattle are been surviving on in them pastures, there is absolutely nothing," says Scorby.

Grass is a valuable commodity in this part of cattle country. From northwest Minnesota across the plains states, most ranchers run what's called cow-calf operations.

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Large pastures and open range are perfect for these ranchers. They raise cattle for breeding stock, to sell to feed lot owners who will fatten the cattle for slaughter. But when their pastures and range land dry up they're faced with a tough decision sell their cows months earlier than normal or buy more feed. It's a decision Jim McFadgen has been forced to make.

"I don't have the feed supply so I'm actually here to reduce the size of my herd because I can't afford to keep them," McFadgen says.

The money McFadgen gets for his cows will be used to buy feed for his remaining animals.

Empty stock trailers at the sale barn
Empty stock trailers are a common sight at sale barns these days. Many farmers and ranchers are selling all or part of their herds.
MPR Photo/Bob Reha

It's a good market for sellers. Kory Scorby at the West Fargo sales barn says most ranchers selling cows and calves are getting about $250 more per animal than last year.

It might seem like a lot of money, but the price of doing business is also going up. Fuel prices are high. With feed in short supply demand is driving the price up. It all cuts into a rancher's profit.

Scorby says if ranchers continue to sell off more of their cattle, it will make it difficult to restock their herds. When the drought breaks and the grasslands are restored, ranchers may have to pay a premium price for replacement stock.

"We seen a lot of guys putting heifer calves back this spring to breed," Scorby says. "We thought we were going to get back on this herd building you know. But right now with all of these guys having to sell out, it's not going to be happening for some time."

Demand for beef in America remains strong. If herd numbers continue to decline, there is a chance some ranchers will continue to benefit from high prices, if they have cattle to sell.

Jerry Hieb
Jerry Hieb raises cattle near Valley City. Hieb says his operation is in good shape despite dry conditions.
MPR Photo/Bob Reha

"In order to get good luck somebody else has to have bad luck," says Jerry Hieb, a rancher from Valley City, North Dakota. "So if people are selling cattle off it will affect the market."

Hieb says he's is in better shape than most ranchers.

"We've got plenty of pasture for our cattle so all we're selling is some older bulls, a few yearlings, it's nothing because of the weather yet, but it may happen that way," Hieb says.

65-year-old Hieb is a retired school teacher but he has no plans to get out of the cattle business. Hieb was able to stock pile some grass from last year's crop. He says if his pastures hold up he'll be able to maintain his herd.

Others like Jim McFadgen aren't so certain about the future. McFadgen isn't solely dependent on ranching to make a living, he also teaches. He wants to continue raising cattle but if the drought continues, he might be forced out of the business.

Kory Scorby says the drought has come at a particularly bad time. He says the cattle business has been strong in recent years. The industry was attracting young people back to agriculture. Now he says unless there is some relief from the drought, those young people will be forced out of the business.