Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series about how ranchers are coping with drought conditions.

TOWNER, North Dakota — Recent rains have made drought-stricken northern North Dakota cattlemen a bit more confident about keeping cattle, but many are still making countermoves — travelling farther-afield to find feed. Sale barns in the region are seeing higher numbers of liquidations.

Jeff Kuntz, 48, of Towner, North Dakota, and his wife, Jessica, an agronomist, sold nearly half of their beef cow herd in early June and are now scrambling to the drought-stricken corn herd to feed their remaining animals through the winter, with an eye toward rebuilding. Photo taken Sept. 1, 2021, near Norwich, North Dakota. 
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Jeff Kuntz, 48, of Towner, North Dakota, and his wife, Jessica, an agronomist, sold nearly half of their beef cow herd in early June and are now scrambling to the drought-stricken corn herd to feed their remaining animals through the winter, with an eye toward rebuilding. Photo taken Sept. 1, 2021, near Norwich, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Jeff Kuntz, 48, is a rancher from Towner, North Dakota, On Sept. 1, 2021, Kuntz was cutting a “droughted-out” field of corn about 40 miles of his west, near the town of Norwich, North Dakota, to use for livestock forage in the winter. Kuntz in the next week put the corn into stover bales.

Rancher Jeff Kuntz of Towner, North Dakota, on Sept. 1, 2021, uses an 18-foot wide MacDon header to cut drought-struck corn near Norwich, North Dakota, that he later baled to help feed his commercial beef cow herd through the winter. The corn is high in nitrates and would have to be mixed with lower-energy forages to make cattle feed. Photo taken Sept. 1, 2021, near Norwich, North Dakota. 
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Rancher Jeff Kuntz of Towner, North Dakota, on Sept. 1, 2021, uses an 18-foot wide MacDon header to cut drought-struck corn near Norwich, North Dakota, that he later baled to help feed his commercial beef cow herd through the winter. The corn is high in nitrates and would have to be mixed with lower-energy forages to make cattle feed. Photo taken Sept. 1, 2021, near Norwich, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

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On another corn field he used a friend’s silage cutter and put it in a pile to haul it at a later date.

After a devastating drought, the Kuntz Ranch picked up about 5 inches of rain in late August. Kuntz was looking at turning cows into corn fields on his own ranch that have been zeroed-out for crop insurance. Kuntz hopes that gets him to early October, when he’ll decide whether to wean calves early to preserve his cow herd.

Kuntz Ranch usually runs about 300 cows. Jeff and his wife Jessica, who works as an agronomist for Dakota Agronomy at Bottineau, North Dakota, own about 2,200 acres. They raise crops on 300 farmland acres, where they grow oats, barley and corn, mostly for cattle feed.

In the first week of June 2021, the Kuntzes sold about 140 of their 300 cow-calf pairs of Angus-Simmental cross commercial cows — any cow with its sixth calf and older. Jeff said the market then was “average” at $1,400 per cow-calf pair. He held back 55 heifers to breed to put back in the herd.

“We tried to keep the younger cows in the herd, the ones that had the newest genetics to them,” Kuntz said. He said he’ll try to bring numbers up slowly in the future, keeping replacement heifers. Depending on the federal administration tax policies, he might be forced to buy someone else’s animals animals quickly. He figures it would cost $1,800 or more a bred cow — $1,200 to $1,300 for a breeding quality heifer.

The 400-pound steer calves have been bringing $900 to $950. Kuntz was thinking he’d take them to market rather than buying $6 to $7 per bushel dry corn to feed them.

Blessings

Kuntz was thankful to the farmer who allowed him to harvest zeroed-out corn for stover bales.

“It looks like it’ll be one to two bales an acre, which will help me feed cows this winter,” Kuntz said.

He left stubble as tall as possible, while still allowing the feed residue to be raked together for baling. He’s also leaving uncut strips of corn to help catch snow and moisture for the 2022 crops.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency adjusted policies to allow some of the drought-stricken crops to become cattle feed, including this corn field. The Farm Service Agency also allowed them to use some of his father-in-law’s Conservation Reserve Program lands, which he figured allowed him to keep 25 cows he’d otherwise have had to sell.

But to get the “free” grazing, the Kuntzes had to spend thousands cleaning out water holes and installing solar panels for water well pumping, as well as fencing.

It’ll stave off the option of purchasing drought-inflated feed sources. Kuntz is monitoring the nitrate levels in the corn and is contemplating blending lower-quality feed to make palatable cattle feed. Some cattlemen in his area will start feeding cattle earlier than normal this fall.

Kuntz sees the 2021 drought is part of a longer-term trend. “I’ve seen it coming,” he said. “2016 was our last really good growing year.”

A ‘break’ for some

Jim Ziegler, owner of Lake Region Livestock at Devils Lake, North Dakota, said the sale barn he runs with his wife, Mary, has had weekly sales through the summer, rather than every other week. The barn handled two to three times as many cattle per month than usual.

Jim Ziegler, owner of Lake Region Livestock sale barn, ran weekly sales through the drought-stricken summer, with numbers more than twice normal. After Labor Day, sales typically are weekly. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021, Devils Lake, North Dakota
 Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Jim Ziegler, owner of Lake Region Livestock sale barn, ran weekly sales through the drought-stricken summer, with numbers more than twice normal. After Labor Day, sales typically are weekly. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021, Devils Lake, North Dakota Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“We’re just hitting the time of year when they’re having to do some drastic changes,” Ziegler said, after his sale on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. “People are working on a plan to wean their calves early. They’re taking cows off of grass, culling early.”

Though the entire area is in a general drought, Ziegler noted there are some places — like south of Devils Lake — where things were suffering the worst.

“Soil types demand more (rain) and they got less,” he said. Some farmers closer to the Red River Valley may have picked up a few more timely rains and have more byproducts for putting up feed on marginal lands.

Rains have been highly variable.

At Devils Lake, 2 inches of rain had fallen in late August. Not far away, some producers had received 3 inches to 6 inches of rain. Still others had only hundredths.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say the drought is over, here; we just got a break,” Ziegler said.

Some of the cereal grains were hayed. Some of the corn was put up for silage, although quality and quantity were reduced by the drought. Most of the hay crop was 20% to 25% of normal. Grass hay usually is cut once. Alfalfa is usually cut two or three times.

“That didn’t happen,” Ziegler said.

Lake Region Livestock in Devils Lake, North Dakota, in the summer of 2021, were larger than normal due to a shortage of feed due to a drought. Sales will be weekly into the fall and numbers should abate as herds have slimmed down to match feed supplies.  Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021, Devils Lake, North Dakota 
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Lake Region Livestock in Devils Lake, North Dakota, in the summer of 2021, were larger than normal due to a shortage of feed due to a drought. Sales will be weekly into the fall and numbers should abate as herds have slimmed down to match feed supplies. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021, Devils Lake, North Dakota Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“The good operators didn’t fight it,” Ziegler said, of the drought. “They started to make corrections early-on.”

He estimates the cow herd may have been reduced 10% to 20% in the eastern part of the state. He said he could think of a couple of operations where a producer in his 60s drastically cut his cow herd so a son and a young family could continue with their cows. He said that is a “pretty noble thing to do,” he said, but declined to offer any specifics.

“Basically, most of the calf crop in the state will be gone by Christmas,” Ziegler predicted. They’ll go to areas of the country where summer rains were more plentiful. “It takes quality feed to background(-feed), take care of a set of young cattle. Those people are ready: They’ll take this calf crop with open arms.”

Drought isn’t done

Drought-related cattle sales made it a busy summer at Lake Region Livestock, a sale barn at Devils Lake, North Dakota. Cattle producers there are hoping the drought cycle will break, heading into spring 2022. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021, Devils Lake, North Dakota
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Drought-related cattle sales made it a busy summer at Lake Region Livestock, a sale barn at Devils Lake, North Dakota. Cattle producers there are hoping the drought cycle will break, heading into spring 2022. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021, Devils Lake, North Dakota Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Lake Region’s barn goes to a schedule of weekly sales around Labor Day in September, usually starting at 9 a.m. (earlier, if necessary). The sale on Aug. 31, 2021, had more than 800 cattle — about 400 yearlings, about 400 weigh-up cows. Early-on, this fall, he expects numbers to be higher than normal, and then get to be less than normal into the fall.

“We’ll deplete the numbers and get the business done that we normally do in five months, we’ll probably do in three,” he said.

Ziegler said producers are lucky the market has been “pretty good,” which makes the decisions a little easier.

“The yearling cattle are probably bringing $300 to $400 a head more than they did a year ago,” he said. “The calves are going to bring a couple hundred more than they did a year ago. If they get pushed into having to market, they can.”

Rancher-clients of Lake Region Livestock sale barn at Devils Lake, North Dakota, were considering whether to wean calves early, attempting to reserve drought-depleted feed for cow herds.  Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021, Devils Lake, North Dakota
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Rancher-clients of Lake Region Livestock sale barn at Devils Lake, North Dakota, were considering whether to wean calves early, attempting to reserve drought-depleted feed for cow herds. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021, Devils Lake, North Dakota Mikkel Pates / Agweek

If the drought cycle turns around and the spring has normal moisture, Ziegler thinks some producers will start rebuilding herds.

“Some people will come back in, some won’t come back in. It’ll go the route of agriculture — less producers, who have more cattle. That’s probably what we’re headed for,” he predicts.