Drought saps feed, worries ranchersDry spell also brings disease, fertility concerns.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
The drought of 2012 has gotten a lot of attention for its impact on farmers, but it has been equally tough on cattle producers who are facing short feed supplies.
It has forced Bill Slovek, of Philip, a past president of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, to ship two-thirds of his herd to Watertown to take advantage of more plentiful feed there. He said the rest will soon follow, and many of his neighbors are doing the same.
It pencils out that it’s cheaper to ship cattle to feed once than to import silage and other feed month after month.
Slovek called 2012 the “perfect storm” of droughts.
“Everything that can go wrong went wrong,” he said. “Last July it quit raining, then we had a dry fall and no snow last winter. We had a little bit of moisture this spring, but by the time things started growing real good, we had a late frost. That set everything back to zero and we didn’t have enough moisture to get going again.”
About a month later, a hailstorm destroyed more than half of Slovek’s summer pasture.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen here in my lifetime,” he said.
In a normal winter, said Slovek, he would have enough hay for two winters, but this year has been anything but normal. It’s no longer about having enough feed to make it through the winters.
“The other day I drove to Pierre and I saw three people feeding their cows already, so you might say winter started in the middle of September this year. We’re out of grass — and it’s seven months to green grass.”
Home by February
Slovek plans to bring his cows home by February for spring calving. His goals are simple: to save the grass he does have, to keep his herd healthy and to save enough hay to make it through 2013 if the drought stretches into another year.
If that worst-case scenario does happen, a fair number of producers will be struggling to break even, he predicts.
The irony is that most cattle producers will agree that 2011 was one of their best years ever and until this summer, 2012 promised to be as good. The drought, coupled with high feed and fuel prices, sent a promising year rapidly downhill.
Cory Eich, who farms in Canova, is the first vice president of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association. He will become the organization’s president at the end of November.
He said producers aren’t looking for government handouts, but some provisions for disaster relief would be welcome.
“We’d like to see the House pass a farm bill like the Senate has with some indemnity for disasters; that would offer some assistance,” he said.
Cattlemen are a self-sufficient lot, Eich said, and tend to be suspicious of excessive government involvement in their affairs.
Slovek feels the same.
“Anytime you take something, you give up something — there are always strings attached to government money,” he said. “Cattlemen tend to be an independent bunch. There’s no push for any subsidies.”
A drop here, a drop there
Eich, who lives on the eastern side of the state, said drought conditions are not as bad in his area as they are elsewhere.
“We’re OK. We caught rains early, our cows are still on grass yet, and we haven’t had to sell off many.”
Longtime cattlewoman Dvonne Hansen, 78, of Letcher, said the drought has been tough, but she remains optimistic things will turn around. She said cattle prices have been strong enough to see producers through to better times.
Lanning Edwards, an auctioneer at Mitchell Livestock, said that cattle prices, which dipped in July and August, are again on the upswing, but they may not meet the expectations of some producers.
“Everybody’s situation is different,” he said.
While this year was bad, Hansen believes 1976 was even worse.
“We didn’t have any pasture. It was so bad the James River dried up in spots and we had to have hay shipped in from Montana.”
Hansen said she may have to cut back her small herd of Angus and Angus Hereford cattle next year because of the higher feed prices. Her concern, which was echoed by other producers, is that buying replacement cattle at some future date could be too costly.
Would she welcome more government assistance?
“Not really,” she said, but she believes the one thing the government did right this year is to open more Conservation Reserve Program acreage to cattle producers.
“It made more hay available,” she said.
Brian Burkhart, southeast region vice president with the Cattlemen’s Association, said hay shortages have, at the least, doubled last year’s prices. He said the first two cuttings were good but the windrows grew progressively smaller in subsequent cuttings, if there were any.
“This is a national drought and it’s a big deal,” Burkhart said.
“Most cow-calf operations are struggling to maintain their herds, and cornstalks will be used for feed in some areas,” he said.
There are concerns about nitrates in corn silage as well as aflatoxins (toxic molds) in shelled corn, he said. “We’ve had no problems with high nitrates in our area.”
Noting the spotty nature of this summer’s rain, Burkhart said that as bad as the drought is, it might have been worse.
“Sometimes it just boils down to luck,” he said.
State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven is worried that the drought-related physical stresses experienced by the state’s cattle could negatively affect the conception rates this fall.
Oedekoven said the drought has forced the state’s herds to contend with poor feed, high heat, potentially toxic nitrate levels in corn silage and, most recently, outbreaks of Epizootic Hemmorrhagic Disease (EHD), a virus that has been devastating to whitetail deer.
Roy Peters, a veterinarian with the Sioux Nation Ag Center in Freeman, said nitrate levels in corn silage have been higher than normal in some areas. Those levels, while not lethal, could be sufficiently high to put pregnant cattle at risk.
Both Peters and Oedekoven are recommending the testing of all silage for nitrates prior to feeding cattle.
EHD has recently infected some cattle herds, causing painful mouth lesions, fever and lameness. Fortunately the virus, which is transmitted by a tiny fly, rarely proves fatal to cattle but it could, coupled with other drought stressors, affect conception rates.
“I hope I’m wrong, but we could see a greater percentage of open (unfertile) cows this fall,” Oedekoven said.