Drought in ND forces some to sell entire cowherds

With less than 2 inches of rainfall this year, following no more than a couple of inches of winter snow, the north central part of North Dakota is suffering.

Some ranchers like Jason Zahn, Towner, N.D., are forced to decide what part of their cowherd should go to town.

Others are less lucky, sending truckload after truckload until the pastures are void not only of grass, but of cattle, too.

Zahn said he made the tough decision to cull his 10-, 11- and 12-year-old cow pairs, figuring his best genetics are in his younger cows. But letting go of a cow that has stood the test of time, bringing in a calf year after year, is as tough on the heart as it is on the bank account.


Rugby Livestock owner Cliff Mattson said that his sale barn sold more pairs in two weeks this June than they had the six Junes prior.

He has hosted several full dispersal sales.

“There have been 300-400 head outfits that have completely sold out. That’s all they did all their lives. It was so disheartening, they didn’t even come to the sale.

“It wasn’t just one time, they started with their older cows, then went to their replacement heifers, then went to middle aged cows, and then last week, we saw young cows come to town. It was so hard to talk to them. There is nothing that will make it any better. I don’t know what they are going to do,” said Mattson.

Mattson said the Towner, N.D., area seems to be the hardest hit as far as the drought.

“Towner is the cattle capital of the world, there is even a sign that says that.

“Those ranchers help each other out, they are like family to each other. They don’t want outside help, they just want good prices and they want rain,” he said.

Mattson himself has sold 90 head of cows, culling the older cows first. “I told my wife, if we have to sell out now, we’re getting rid of everything, I’m not picking and choosing, that’s the hardest part.”

Mattson said there are also some areas where grass is a little better, but water is all but non-existent because of the extremely dry winter resulting in no snow runoff to fill dams and freshen rivers and creeks.

“Normally this time of year we are selling every other week, maybe a couple hundred kill cows. As far as pairs we might sell a handful here and there. Now, because of the drought, we are getting 700-1,000 pairs per week,” he said.

The barn is also handling 800-900 weigh up cows every week. Many of these are dry cows that would normally not go to town this early.

The barn usually only holds bi-weekly sales in the summer, which gives them time to catch up on repairs and other behind the scenes work.

But with big weekly sales throughout June and scheduled for July, there doesn’t look to be a slowdown ahead.

Mattson pointed out that the barn is also selling a lot of grass cattle – yearlings that would normally be put out to pasture now and return to the barn in the late summer for sale.

The good news, he said, is that the market in his barn as been as strong as anywhere else. “The ranchers seem satisfied with our market compared to others. Of course, we always want more, but they are pleased that they can haul them 20 or 30 miles and get the same prices they would if they hauled them 200 or 300 miles.

His barn, including his 30 employees are on Mattson’s mind as he watches cows and calves leave the region, never to return.

“It’s going to be a pretty slow fall. Next spring will be slow. I’m worried how we will survive as a sale barn,” he said.


Zahn is still feeding his cows in hopes of keeping both the pastures and cattle healthy until he can wean early, maybe mid-August to September.

“Some are selling older cows, some middle-aged, some young cows,” he said. While he doesn’t plan to creep feed his calves, he said some ranchers are doing it, in an effort to save grass.

Pastures are short and already brown. Photo by Cliff Mattson

“People are feeding longer than normal, using lick tubs, wheat mids, silage, whatever, trying to get a couple more weeks out of those pastures. We are taking out silage and wheat mids to prolong our pastures,” he said.

Zahn said producers are hoping that even if they have to sell the cow and the calf that they can make it until weaning time to sell a bred cow and weaned calf, which should result in more value than a spring pair.

His corn acres that didn’t grow will hopefully be released by the insurance company soon so that Zahn can go back in and plant a forage crop such as sorghum or millet. “We’re hoping there is enough moisture to germinate it. And then hopefully we get some rain and we will hay it or graze it,” he said.

Mattson recently planted oats into a field of canola that was zeroed out by the insurance company. “We did catch a rain, and I went and looked at it. It’s coming, but with this heat, it’s burning up,” he said.

Mattson said a rancher he talked to recently put up some alfalfa hay that normally produces four to five bales to the acre, but this year added up to just a bale an acre.

Zahn said many of his neighbors are drylotting replacement heifers rather than turning them to grass, but he points out that this burns up feed that will not be available this fall, in a year when feed will be extremely scarce as it is.

Mattson also points out that because of the open winter, many ranchers left cows out to graze throughout those months, which means there is less residual grass than most years.

He has located some hay about 130 miles away, and while trucking costs make it difficult to pencil out, Zahn and other ranchers know the genetic value of their cows cannot simply be replaced when the weather pattern shifts for the better, whenever that is.


If the federal government would release Conservation Reserve Program acres for early haying, it would help producers in his area, Zahn said. CRP has been opened for grazing until Sept. 30, in most North Dakota counties. Producers should contact their county USDA office for details.

Mattson also hopes to see CRP opened for haying immediately. “The ducks and pheasants will be around next year, but if these ranchers don’t get rain, they won’t be around next year,” he said.

The North Dakota governor and ag commissioner visited with producers in town hall meetings recently, and mentioned possibly offering help in the form of subsidized freight costs for hay and for cattle being shipped to feedlots that are intended to return home.


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