Drought conditions impact cattle marketing | TheFencePost.com

Drought conditions impact cattle marketing

“We’re starting to run 90 percent weaned calves now,” said Mike Mahony, manager of Ericson Spalding Livestock Market in Ericson, Neb. “We mostly specialize in selling feeder cattle. I’d say our sales are normal. Cattle prices from autumn to now have been trending higher.”

Weather plays a pivotal role in deciding when to sell cattle. In Kansas and Nebraska, especially the eastern half of both states, many livestock producers are getting weaned calves ready to send to the sale barn. However, where drought is bearing down, especially in Colorado and other western states, it’s another story.

Tough decisions have to be made in parts of Colorado. Because producers pulled calves off pasture in the summer, buyers are looking at other options.

“Decisions were made in the end of July and early August regarding producers’ annual production calf crop, and 50 percent weaned early, and another 50 percent sold early or were brought into a drylot,” said Robin Varelman, owner of Livestock Exchange LLC in Brush, Colo. “So, we’re only looking at 25 percent availability.”

Maneuvering through a drought has been challenging. Varelman said it gives new understanding to conditions during the Dust Bowl. “Obviously most of us never lived it then, even those of us who have farmed for 35 years, but you hear people talk about those years,” Varelman said, adding that some towns like Wild Horse in east central Colorado have been particularly hard hit with drought for the past three years.

“Drought seems to go in cycles, so I’m hoping we’re at the end of the cycle,” said Varelman, noting there has been some positive recent news. “We did receive 8 inches of snow last week (week of Dec. 7) which gives hope to everybody.”


There have been some instances of producers in eastern Colorado selling early, and in some cases the whole herd with most of the young cows going to the Dakotas and eastern Nebraska, where people have been either coming to the sale or having an order buyer purchase them.

“Although we expect it’ll be a little quieter now through the first of the year and for the next several sales after the first of the year, then there will be a lot of cattle moving again, which is normal,” said Rodger Woodard, one of the field representatives at Livestock Exchange LLC. After Jan. 1, sales for cows are scheduled every Thursday, then yearlings on Friday.

In north central Nebraska, it’s a time of anticipation for weaned calves at the sale barns.

“We’re starting to run 90 percent weaned calves now,” said Mike Mahony, manager of Ericson Spalding Livestock Market in Ericson, Neb. “We mostly specialize in selling feeder cattle. I’d say our sales are normal. Cattle prices from autumn to now have been trending higher.”

At Ericson Spalding sale day is Saturday. “After our first bred female sale on Saturday (Dec. 19) then we’ll have feeder sales after the first of the year/every Saturday,” Mahony said.

In southwest Kansas, Brian Winter owner of Winter Livestock in Dodge City, who also operates sale barns in Enid, Okla., Pratt, Kan., La Junta, Colo., and Riverton, Wyo., said that sales were slow in late September and early October, but have since improved.

“That’s because we had some weather and harvest delays,” he said. “There is a huge milo crop in western and southwest Kansas, and it was dry early. But we got some considerable moisture which brought the wheat pastures along, which helped as much as anything,” Winter said.

Many of the calves are already weaned. “Calves are pretty much finishing out,” he said. “By Jan. 15, we will be nearly completed at our markets in Colorado and Wyoming. Anyone going past that is probably going to a full feeder weight, or a grow lot situation and those will market in March and May. We’re finishing up with the lightweight cattle and half or more are weaned.”

Cattle quality matters, as well as the handling, such as vaccinations. But dry conditions supercede everything in some areas.

“From the Front Range out to central Kansas, we’ve struggled with moisture for about 15 years,” he said. “It’s been pretty dry which has caused herd size to reduce, or if a producer doesn’t have adequate feed they sell earlier.

“We don’t like to see people sell, Winter said. ”We’ve seen moisture issues in Colorado and Wyoming but from Dodge eastward it’s been good.”

Bottom line it that from November and onward, it’s expected to be a lower than average grazing year.


In southeast Nebraska, the market outlook is positive.

“Cattle prices have been getting better,” said Larry Junker, owner of Fairbury Livestock Company, in Fairbury, Neb. “When we flip the calendar (to the new year) we will be selling a lot of weaned calves.”

Interest is also strong from the buyers for cattle to go to feedyards as well as grass calves.

“We can’t be negative right now,“ he said ”I’ve got plenty of room for buyers and sellers.“

In this La Niña winter, above-normal temperatures and drier than normal conditions as a whole, are anticipated from eastern Colorado and eastern Wyoming to the central Plains. The exception to Colorado’s dry northwest flow, is its’ central mountains where northwesterly flow has favorable orographics (when an airmass is lifted up over rising terrain such as a mountain).

For Nebraska and Kansas, La Niña usually means colder and drier weather, although winter storms can still develop in the central Plains depending on shorter wave weather systems (troughs) and how much they intensify. When upper-level low pressure systems track from the southern Plains up into Missouri, then Kansas can get heavy snow.

The latest La Niña advisory issued Dec. 10 from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center indicates La Niña persisted during November 2020 with well-below-average sea surface temperatures extending from the Date Line to the eastern Pacific Ocean. There is about a 95 percent chance of the La Niña continuing from January to March. Then, a potential transition is indicated during spring 2021, with about a 50 percent chance of neutral from April to June.

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