Northern Plains Dryness Forcing Cattle Producers to Sell Herds

Dryness is intensifying in the northern Plains, and cattlemen and grain markets are responding.

The latest drought monitor shows the drought in North Dakota and parts of neighboring states is getting worse by the day. The entire state is at some level of drought, but the big changes are seen in the individual categories.

74 percent is in moderate drought compared to 25 percent one week ago, and 14 percent is now rated as severe drought when last week it was zero.

Many North Dakota ranchers who recently turned their cows and calves out to pasture are selling off sections of their herds. Producers are fearful there won’t be enough grass to get livestock through a long, hot summer.

Livestock producers have been waiting for rain are running out of options, so they’re delivering cattle to auction markets.

“The panic mode has started,” said Jerry Kist, owner of Kist Livestock Auction. “The reality that this could get serious is here.”

He says his auction market is adding an extra sale each week to handle the drastic increase in the number of cattle being sold.

John Mertz, a rancher from Sheridan County, has sold 200 steers and says his heifers are going to be next. He says he hasn’t seen drought conditions this bad in 30 years.

“I was through the drought in ’87 and ’88, and it seems like it was a lot worse this year,” said Mertz.

Producers are getting rid of a lot of marginal livestock, but they aren’t auction off the heart of their herds yet.

“We’re selling the older cows and trying to save the younger ones, and I’m weaning the calves and keeping them because they don’t eat as much as a cow,” said Kevin Axt, a rancher from Wells County.

He says he’s already lost 50 percent of his pasture—the grass never grew because of dryness. If the rain doesn’t fall soon, Axt is fearful he will have to sell more of his herd.

“Nobody has dug into the heart of their herd, you just have to have hope,” said Kist.