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Drought, lack of feed 'just a bad situation' for northern North Dakota cattle producers

Cattle producers are forced to make grueling decisions, as they navigate one of the worst drought in recent history.

Bill Smith has struggled with selling his bulls private treaty due to the drought and ranchers liquidating their herds. Photo taken June 21, 2021, in Sheyenne, N.D. (Emily Beal, Agweek)
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Bill Smith farms and ranches near Sheyenne, N.D. His father started a registered herd of cattle in 1953, and eventually Bill took over the reins of the operation. Smith’s family has a long lasting legacy on their soil, which has been tended to and kept in the family for decades.

“It’s been six generations on the same dirt,” Smith said.

Smith, growing up immersed in agriculture and the cattle industry, has seen his fair share of hardships. Yet, he believes the region’s current drought situation may be the worst he has witnessed.

" '‘88 was bad , but I'd trade this year for ‘88 in a heartbeat. This is way worse,” Smith said.

Ron Torgerson has also put many years into the cattle industry, serving as a livestock auctioneer for over 40 years. He, like Smith, agrees that this is the worst case of drought he has ever seen.


“In ‘61 this area was totally dried out, a lot of cattle were moved that time. ‘88 and ‘89 we had drought conditions, not as severe as what we’re seeing right now,” Torgerson said. “It’s just a bad situation.”

Cattle producers are facing unprecedented times due to the region's drought. This sign outside Rugby Livestock signifies the community support for the ranchers. Photo taken June 21, 2021 in Rugby, N.D. (Emily Beal, Agweek)

Agriculturalists are known for their optimism and perseverance, many hoping and praying that their ranch won’t be hit by the wrath of Mother Nature or that the market prices will begin to rise.

Yet, 2021 has already proven itself to be a force to be reckoned with, especially for those who raise livestock on the great plains. And despite their best efforts, due to the drought stricken soil, many ranchers are faced with some burdensome decisions. For many ranchers, their cows won’t be coming home this summer.

Rain, rain come this way

Bill Smith believes this is the worst drought he has seen in his lifetime. Photo taken June 21, 2021, in Sheyenne, N.D. (Emily Beal, Agweek)

With over 350 commercial and registered cattle, Smith is feeling the burden of lack of forage production on his ranch. His normally lush and verdant pastures are only about a fourth of what they are during a normal year, due to lack of precipitation. He also has pastures that will not see a single animal in them this year, as there is no forage in the pasture for the cattle to graze on.


Smith also deepened three additional water holes on his property, as he had a feeling this summer would present itself with intense heat and little rain.

“We kind of suspected it all winter, because we didn’t get any snow and we went into the fall super dry,” Smith said.

Smith's pastures have not been able to produce the amount of forage needed for his herd. Photo taken June 21, 2021, in Sheyenne, N.D. (Emily Beal, Agweek)

In an effort to supplement his pasture forage, Smith planted an abundance of corn. But unfortunately, that crop has not been weathering well either.

“We need some corn to feed in the winter, and that’s really up in the air if there’s even going to be a kernel on the corn out there. It’s really up in the air,” Smith said.

The lack of forage has caused hay prices to soar. Due to the widespread drought, many producers, such as Smith, have to travel many miles to bring hay back to their herd, tacking on a hefty transportation cost to the already high price of forage.

In addition, due to the dry, dusty conditions, some of Smith’s herd experienced dust pneumonia . The condition even claimed one of his cows.

Difficult decisions


Rugby Livestock Auction has been seeing over triple the amount of cattle come through their ring this summer compared to a normal year. Photo taken June 21, 2021 in Rugby, N.D. (Emily Beal, Agweek)

During a normal year, Rugby Livestock Auction would be having a bi-weekly sale, selling about 600-700 head of cattle. But according to Torgerson, the Rugby Livestock Auction is selling each week, with an astronomically high amount of cattle on the block.

“This spring of course with the drought, we’re seeing a huge influx of cattle,” he said. “Today we’re looking at 2,700 plus. There’s over 700 cow-calf pairs here."

Torgerson was the auctioneer at Rugby Sale Auction for many years and still comes to the auction each week. He said the current drought conditions are forcing many ranchers to downsize their herd or get out of the cattle business entirely.

“It’s a sad, sad situation, all these guys having to disperse a lot of their cows. We've got two complete disbursements today. There’s no grass out in the pasture, and it doesn’t look very good for hay,” Torgerson said. “Everybody is in the same boat. They’re discouraged. With the drought conditions, a lot of these guys that are selling out will probably never get back into the cattle business. It’s going to certainly show up this winter. We’re gonna have a lot fewer cattle to sell.”

Many producers have made that difficult decision to downsize, including Smith and a fellow rancher friend.

Many producers are being forced to sell out their entire herd due to the drought. Photo taken June 21, 2021, in Rugby, N.D. (Emily Beal, Agweek)

“I have a good friend up at Rock Lake, he sold all his cows so his son could keep his. He just sold the whole herd. I think there’s more of that going on," Smith said. “We’ve already sold 50-some females and we’re probably going to sell a few more. We’ll just have to wait and see how the summer goes.”

Smith decided to take a group of replacement heifers and yearlings down to a feedlot in Bismarck to help free up more grass for his cow calf pairs.

The drought and ranchers downsizing has hit Smith’s operation incredibly hard, as they sell breeding bulls.

“It's been really tough selling bulls private treaty. You know if you’re selling cows, you’re not going to need an extra bull, or if you sell all your cows you’re not going to need any bulls,” Smith said.

A shoulder to lean on

Bill Smith has struggled with selling his bulls private treaty due to the drought and ranchers liquidating their herds. Photo taken June 21, 2021, in Sheyenne, N.D. (Emily Beal, Agweek)

Though the drought has plagued the region’s cattle industry in an abundance of ways, it has also brought farmers and ranchers closer together.

“Everybody’s got a tough time of it. Misery loves company. There’s a lot more communication between rancher friends then maybe there is normally. A lot of people are in the same boat and they’re trying to help one another if they can,” Smith said.

Smith’s neighbor offered a helping hand that was vital in sparing some of Smith’s herd from being sold off the ranch. The neighbor allowed Smith’s cows to graze on a pasture that was not being used. That was a game changer.

“That really helped us. We would have probably had to have sold 70 or 80 pairs,” Smith said.

Smith and his fellow ranchers aren’t giving up hope and are holding on to the daydream that rain will eventually come their way.

“It’s just like if you went to the tap to get a drink and no water came out,” Smith said.

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