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Drought forces cattle sales in NE, KS, OK, TX and more

Grass is dry and short in Mike Cantrell's part of Oklahoma. Mike Cantrell
courtesy photo

The US drought monitor indicates severe, extreme and exceptional drought throughout huge swaths of America’s cattle country.

These words, along with many more come to mind for the producers and feeders praying for a rain. Overwhelming, frustrating, scary, expensive, deadly, depressing: these are a few words ranchers might use to describe their mental state as they face tough decisions brought about by diminished forage, lower water quality or maybe worse.

Most of North Dakota has recovered from the 2021 drought, but parts of South Dakota are experiencing debilitating drought this year, and the situation gets worse the further south and west you go.



With the official designation of “exceptional drought” and “extreme drought” encompassing a large swath of southern Nebraska, Jay Nordhausen, co-owner of Ogallala Livestock and North Platte Stockyards, said his entire customer base is dealing with drought conditions.

“It is very streaky,” he said. “To the south of both auction markets (which he owns with Lance VanWinkle) is probably the more extreme drought. From Ogallala west it is really bad. Everything north and east is sitting better but still dryer than normal,” he said.



Throughout the past year, his auction markets have seen a “constant flow” of weigh up cows and bulls due to ranchers who are culling deeper than normal in an effort to relieve stress on the withering grass.

Cows selling now are mostly sold as weigh ups even if they are exposed, he said, because the weigh-up market is strong.

Smaller farmer feeders and backgrounders in his area as well as Eastern Nebraska, are buying most of the young calves that have come to town this summer, he said.

Nordhausen figures the situation in his area isn’t quite as desperate as further south in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, but without rain and/or snow, they will be “that bad” by next spring.

Producers are getting creative in their efforts to make the best of their situations, with some operators grazing droughted out corn, utilizing cover crops, etc. “Probably the biggest concern in our area is hay availability, and price, just like any time there is a drought,” said Nordhausen. “Guys are reaching out quite a ways to find feed.”

Nordhausen said a silver lining is a stronger market. “At least we aren’t giving them away,” he said. In years past, when severe droughts have caused huge cattle selloffs, the market has often plummeted, he said.

Mike Cantrell, Holdenville Livestock and Cantrell Ag, Holdenville, Oklahoma, said some of the cow runs at his auction market this summer have been twice as big as normal. “We are seeing lots of cows being sold. We’re seeing a lot of light calves coming early, as well as pairs.”

Grass is dry and short in Mike Cantrell's part of Oklahoma. Mike Cantrell
courtesy photo

In the last 90 days, very little rain has fallen near Prague, Oklahoma, where he lives. Cantrell said that the drought, coupled with extreme increases in input costs in recent months has “made up a lot of producers’ minds for them.”

Some ranchers are selling cows and “kind of being done with it,” he said. He added that some of the older generation of producers probably won’t buy back into the business so it’s difficult to say how this selloff will alter the landscape of the cattle industry in his region. Along with the auction market and feed/fertilizer business, Cantrell operates a registered Angus and registered Charolais herd and runs stocker cattle.

“It’s really going to change the dynamics of the industry. We’re taking a lot of factories out of production. It’s going to change our numbers going forward,” he said.

With around 40-50 percent of the beef cattle in his region bearing some brahma influence, the cattle herd looks different than it does in the northern great plains. Many of the cows are going as far east as Kentucky, Missouri and Georgia where the moisture situation is better, he said.

The story is a little brighter around Salinas, Kansas where Mike Samples operates the state’s largest auction barn, Farmers and Ranchers Livestock. But not far west of there, the drought is at the most severe level – “exceptional.”

“Everyone is in a drought to a certain degree,” said Samples of his customers. “Right here, it’s not devastating, but it’s dry. Further south and west of him the drought is more devastating but even in his area, he said cull cow numbers didn’t drop off like they usually do in May at his auction barn. They actually got larger.

It’s no surprise that hay is a big concern for him and his customers. “So much hay is going south to Oklahoma and Texas, it will cause our prices to get a lot higher,” he said.

Steve Parker knows all about the forage situation in Oklahoma. He and his son have turned cows onto an Old World Bluestem irrigated hayfield, and have already sold their calves off their panhandle ranch in Beaver County.

“Growing enough grass to get through winter with grass and cake won’t happen this year,” he said. “The way it’s looking we’ll have to feed regularly to keep the cows happy.”

If not for the ability to irrigate, their situation would be dire, he believes. As it is, they have sold more cull cows than usual, along with all of their calves, save a handful of AI-sired heifer calves. Normally the steer calves would stay and graze for a while, and the replacement heifers would also stick around.

“If it wasn’t for irrigation, we’d be in trouble. It did cool off and the grass kind of greened up the last few days but they are saying they heatwave is coming back, so we’re just trying to get ready,” he said.

 


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