BELLE FOURCHE, S.D. — Some South Dakota ranchers are starting to sell off cattle due to worsening drought conditions that some producers say the state hasn’t seen in decades.
Pastures are drying up, hay and feed are running low and the lack of rain is turning the water bad in stock ponds. Belle Fourche Livestock Exchange owner Dean Strong told the Black Hills Pioneer that one recent sale that typically would have seen 500 cattle had more than 2,000 head. Other auction owners have similar stories.
“There’s quite a few cattle moving right now,” said Justin Tupper, owner of the St. Onge Livestock Co. “Normally this time of year we’ll sell 300 to 500 a week, and now we’re doing 1,000 to 1,500 a week.”
Bruce Blair, who ranches near Tilford in western South Dakota, has sold off some of his herd. His summer pastures have been depleted and he’s had to move cattle onto winter pastures — something he doesn’t normally do until October, he said.
“I’m not sure even the droughts of 2000 through 2008 were quite as bad as this is — at least for me, anyway,” he told the Pioneer.
Some farmers are comparing this year’s conditions to those of the late 1980s and early ‘90s, which caused billions of dollars in crop losses across the Midwest. Phil Hofer, who farms in southeastern South Dakota, said that in his three decades of farming he has experienced a drought like this only once, in 1991.
“You have good years and you have bad years and this one is not going to be so good,” he said. “If this plays out like it looks, food prices are going to go up. There is just no way around it. Because with that limited supply of corn, something is going to have to give.”
The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows that most of South Dakota is in moderate or severe drought, and the rest is abnormally dry. Politicians and farm groups this month have urged the federal government to open Conservation Reserve Program acres to haying and grazing to help ranchers. Normally, landowners are paid to idle CRP land to prevent erosion and create wildlife habitat.
The National Weather Service forecast for the week doesn’t show much promise for relief from the heat. A heat advisory was in effect Monday for the central and eastern parts of the state, with high temperatures in some areas expected to climb to 110 degrees. Highs the rest of the week were forecast in the 80s, 90s and 100s. There is a chance of thunderstorms most days.
Strong said the weather isn’t leaving ranches with many options for their cattle.
“They can either sell them, buy feed and keep them at home or they could take them somewhere where there’s feed, but that’s a long ways away — maybe east (of the Missouri) River or in North Dakota,” he said.