Cows go to market as pastures dry up

cows stand near a tank of water
Many ranchers across the state are watching pastures wither and turn brown amid the ongoing drought. They’re trying to find enough feed to last through the winter, but some are already selling cattle they know they won’t be able to feed.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

On a warm, smoky morning, Cody Schmalz pulls clumps of algae from a stock watering tank in one of his pastures. The hot summer is great for algae growth, but not so much for the grass in the nearby pasture. The cattle have eaten it very short and large areas are turning brown. This summer the cows have been grazing here longer than normal.

"Usually we rotate them a little more but this year with this drier weather, what we found out once they're in the pasture and chew it off a little bit, it actually automatically turns brown,” said Schmalz. “So once you graze one piece, it's actually done for the summer, the way it looks."

a man reaches into a tank of water
Rancher Cody Schmalz cleans algae growth from a livestock watering tank.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

That means instead of resting pastures and bringing cows back after the grass has regrown, this year he's trying to stretch each pasture as long as possible, and has rented about a thousand acres of land for extra grazing space.

Schmalz and his dad manage 600 beef cows and their calves on pastures in Caribou Township, about a mile from the Canadian border, in Kittson County.

He said rainfall is about 8 inches below normal this year. But the rain has been spotty, and some hay fields are green, while meadows a mile down the road are turning brown.

Schmalz has several meadows he didn’t even bother to cut for hay — the grass was too short and dried up. So far, the ranch has about half of the hay they need for winter.

"We started with the low ground thinking the higher spots of all the fields would catch a rain hopefully, and it would grow for a week or two and then we'd come back and cut the high ground,” explained Schmalz. “Well it ain't happening, and it's all burning up and now grasshoppers are eating the rest of it."

Like ranchers across the state, Schmalz is looking for ways to stretch the hay supply.

He’s baling straw from a local farmer’s wheat crop, and just started harvesting grassland enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.

a machine cuts grass in a field
Northern Minnesota rancher Cody Schmalz is cutting conservation program grasslands as he tries to find enough hay to feed his cows through the winter.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

In Kittson County, there are thousands of acres of land enrolled in CRP, which pays landowners to plant grasses and native plants on low quality farmland.

Haying is allowed on some CRP grassland every year starting in August, but the access is expanded under an emergency order this year because of the severe drought.

The Federal Farm Service Agency currently lists 44 Minnesota counties that are in a livestock forage disaster program.

Schmalz pays one-fourth of the rent the landowner receives back to the federal government, and he must leave one-fourth of the grass uncut on each parcel.

But he hopes to get 150 big round hay bales from this 160-acre field.

This field is just 8 miles from his ranch, but has had 2 1/2 inches more of rainfall, so there are still patches of thick green grass to harvest.

He’s not going to buy hay from areas where crops are better.

"It's up to a hundred bucks a bale and what you're going to get for your return on a cow or calf right now, for us it would not be an option. It's just too costly," he said.

In a typical year, Schmalz would sell the hundreds of calves now on pasture in November, when they weigh about 750 pounds. This year he plans to sell them the first of October when they will be at least 100 pounds lighter, resulting in a loss of tens of thousands of dollars.

And if it doesn't rain in August, he'll need to sell some of his most productive cows, so the available feed will last through the winter.

Many ranchers are already reducing the size of their herds.

Billy Bushelle operates livestock auctions in Bagley and Winger that serve a large part of northern Minnesota.

"There's hardly ever any cow/calf pairs sold this time of year, in this region of the state,” said Bushelle. “We've been selling from 350 to 600 pairs every week."

Bushelle said he’s operated the auction barns for 28 years and these are the worst conditions he can recall.

a fence in grassy fields
Northern Minnesota hay meadows are drying up as the drought stretches into August.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"It's an unprecedented thing that we're faced with at this time of year, I mean not that we haven't had droughts in the past, but nothing like this. Living in northern Minnesota you just assume you're going to get rain."

Bushelle expects cattle sales to increase if August stays dry, and there are plenty of buyers taking advantage of the situation.

“We're getting interest from as far away as Illinois, a lot of pairs went to Iowa, some went to Colorado, southern Minnesota, where people are sitting good with moisture,” he said.

Southeastern Minnesota might be the only part of the state where ranchers have enough feed for cattle, said Allison VanDerWal, executive director of the Minnesota Cattlemen's Association.

There are about 360,000 beef cattle in Minnesota she said, and she’s hearing from ranchers across the state who are selling, or contemplating selling part or all of their herds.

"It's definitely going to affect the price that they get and it's going to affect the whole cattle market and cattle cycle."

a field of brown grass
A northern Minnesota cattle pasture has turned brown in the summer heat and drought.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The decision to sell healthy producing cows can hurt a rancher’s bottom line for years.

"Building a herd takes years, and when you start really culling deep into your herd, and you start losing a lot of those genetics, rebuilding it doesn't just take a year, it can take years," said VanDerWal.

Cody Schmalz knows he'll likely need to sell some of his cow herd this fall, but he's still holding out hope rain will rejuvenate the pastures.

"I guess we'll see in the next month,” he said. “Hopefully, it'll start raining later in August."