"Worst thing I remember": how drought is crushing pastoralists

TOWNER, ND – Darrell Rice stood in a field of corn he sowed in early June, to be harvested in the fall and chopped to feed the hundreds ...


TOWNER, ND – Darrell Rice stood in a field of corn he sowed in early June, to be harvested in the fall and chopped to feed the hundreds of cows and calves he raises in central North Dakota .

“He should be six, seven, eight feet tall,” he said, looking at the stunted plants at his feet, their normally flexible leaves curled up against their stems to conserve water in the summer heat.

Like ranchers statewide, Rice is suffering from an epic drought as severe or worse than anywhere else in this season of extreme weather conditions in the western half of the country.

A lack of snow last winter and almost no spring rain created the driest conditions in generations. Herders are forced to sell portions of the herds they have built up over the years, often at discounted prices, to stay in business.

Some will not.

“It’s a very bad situation,” said Randy Weigel, a cattle buyer, who said this drought could force some older ranchers to retire. “They worked their whole lives to get their herd of cows where they wanted, and now they don’t have enough food to feed them.

Since December, in the weekly maps produced by the United States Drought Monitor, all of North Dakota has been colored in shades of yellow, orange and red, symbolizing varying degrees of drought. And as of mid-May, McHenry County, where Mr. Rice operates ranches and farms, has been squarely in the middle of a band of the darkest red, denoting the most extreme conditions.

The January 2020 to June period has been the driest 18 months in McHenry and 11 other counties in the state since modern record keeping began 126 years ago, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“I’ve been ranching for 47 years and then this year must have happened,” said John Marshall, who operates a ranch with his son, Lane, not far from Mr. Rice in this sprawling county where county seat Towner is located. present. as the cattle capital of North Dakota. “It’s the worst thing I can remember.”

Drought conditions that affect almost half of the land area of ​​the lower 48 states are helping to drive up beef prices in American grocery stores. But the ranchers here say they don’t see the money – the slaughterhouses and other middlemen do. On the contrary, the breeders have said that they are losing money because they get less from the forced sale of their animals.

The Marshalls have already sold around 100 cows and plan to sell at least 120 more, which would leave them about two-thirds of their usual herd. “I’ve never had to do this before,” Mr. Marshall said.

Mr. Rice’s corn, which is stored as silage to feed his animals later in the year, is so short that if he tried to harvest it now, he couldn’t. “It’s timeless,” he said.

If it rains a little – a big one, as the forecast for the fall is for continued heat and drought – the corn can grow to six feet, or half its usual height. Even then, he would face a feed shortage and most likely would have to weigh his cows at the communal ranchers on Main Street in Towner and then sell them to a buyer elsewhere.

“If we don’t get silage,” he said, “the cows go to town. “

Rachel Wald, who works for North Dakota State University, advises and supports ranchers, said cattle auction houses, known as auction barns, have been very busy this spring and summer. “We have 2,000 creatures roaming the road every week” in the county, she said. By some estimates, half of the state’s cattle may be gone by the fall.

For breeders who have spent years developing their herd genetics, this can mean a giant step backwards. “Every year we try to improve our breed,” said Shelby Wallman, who, along with her husband, Daryl, has ranched for decades in Rhame, in the southwest of the state.

“It’s a calling,” she said. “You spend your whole life with these cattle. I can tell you there are going to be tears.

North Dakotas have experienced drought several times before. One in 1988 was particularly bad, although John Marshall and others who survived that year said the current drought was worse.

The ranchers point out the variable nature of the climate here – where a dry year or two can easily be followed by a wet spell – instead of talking about climate change. Yet climate change is happening in North Dakota, like everywhere else.

“We are at the epicenter of a changing climate,” said Adnan Akyuz, state climatologist and professor at North Dakota State University. The state has warmed by 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1.3 degrees Celsius) over the past century, he said. It is one of the largest increases in the United States.

North Dakota’s climate is expected to become even more variable, with more extreme precipitation and heat. And like elsewhere, droughts are expected to increase in intensity and frequency.

Conditions are highly variable largely because North Dakota is so far from the oceans, which has a moderating effect on the climate. When the state is not drawing moisture from it, it relies on local sources including lakes, rivers and reservoirs, as well as the moist air that pours into the area in late spring. and in summer from the Gulf of Mexico.

But this Gulf humidity did not arrive this year. And the heat has dried up many local water sources. The result is air that sucks in all possible moisture from the soil and plants.

Signs of drought-stressed vegetation can be seen in McHenry County. Stunted silage corn like Mr. Rice’s is called pineapple corn, because the tight leaves make it look more like a pineapple plant. Elsewhere, soybean plants have turned their leaves to reduce photosynthesis and therefore the need for water, making them appear paler green.

And in the Marshall’s pastures, the grass that should normally be green and reach the knee is brown and stocky.

The Marshalls depend on clean well water pumped from troughs for most of their livestock. But they and other pastoralists also use water points, which collect runoff and rain. And as waterholes dry up, nutrients and other compounds in the water become more concentrated, which can make animals sick.

In one of the Marshall’s water points, the level had dropped several meters. Ms Wald of the university tested for sulfates and dissolved solids and told the Marshalls the water was still good. But she noticed something else.

“Lane, one of the things I would watch out for here is actually the blue-green algae,” she said. In the midst of the heat, the organisms thrived and could eventually release toxins that could harm the livestock. “If an overgrowth occurs, you need to move the animals out of here and find a new water source for them,” Ms. Wald said.

Like other ranchers, the Marshalls purchased additional feed. But with the drought driving up feed prices, at some point it makes more financial sense to sell animals.

It kept the auctioneers busy. At a recent Kist cattle auction in Mandan, just across the Missouri River from Bismarck, ranchers in vans, trailers in tow, lined up to unload cattle they couldn’t could not afford to keep.

Tom Fettig and his wife, Kim, were there with 60 yearlings, about half of a herd they were helping their son raise on the outskirts of Bismarck. The animals were purchased in February for the purpose of fattening them until October, when they would be sold to a feedlot.

The drought ruined these plans. “We’ve only had them on the pasture since June 1,” Fettig said. “And there’s nothing left.

Their hay harvest was also appalling. In a normal year, they would end up with 800 to 900 balls. So far this year, they only have 21.

Inside the semi-circular auction hall, the Fettigs sat on a bench and waited for their yearlings to go up for sale. They watched a parade of other animals come in and auctioneer Darin Horner drove the prices down with a buzzing buzz. Weights and prices paraded on screens above the auctioneer’s head.

“There’s a nice set of steers right by the meadow,” Mr. Horner announced as the Fettig animals crowded into the ring in two groups of 30. They sold for around $ 1,250 apiece – can – to be $ 150 a head less, Mr Fettig said, than if they could have fed them all summer.

The Fettig and John Marshall are fortunate that their sons have followed them in the breeding. But Jerry Kist, co-owner of the auction barn, noted that older ranchers whose children left the land were the most vulnerable to this drought, as were younger ranchers who do not have ranching parents to whom they are most vulnerable. can count to help them become established.

“You just don’t want to see these guys fold and sell their whole herd of cows,” Mr. Kist said.

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Newsrust - US Top News: "Worst thing I remember": how drought is crushing pastoralists
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