The combination of last spring's drought and the unrelenting wrath of snow and cold temperatures this winter has resulted in a severe hay shortage which has forced many ranchers to cut herd numbers or drastically alter their management plans.
"The situation we are facing now was set up last spring with the cold and dry weather we had," said Greg Lardy, an NDSU livestock specialist. He estimates that there was up to a 50 percent loss of forage production as a result of the drought last spring. Add to that the harsh winter conditions, which Lardy estimates has caused a 30 to 40 percent increase in hay feed use this winter, and the problem is clear.
As a result of the early winter and hay shortage, many livestock auctions began seeing increases in sales at their auctions as early as December.
"People began selling earlier than normal, cutting back (herd numbers) to what they have feed for,"said Marlyn Hagen, manager at Northern Livestock Auction in Minot. He said they normally sell 7,000 to 8,000 head of cattle during a typically January month, but this year they sold more than 12,000 cattle.
To accommodate the increase, Hagen said Northern has held larger sales when possible, but have had their own issues this winter clearing snow from the lots. Due to continued poor weather and road conditions, Northern canceled its scheduled auction last Friday.
Generally speaking, Lardy said the areas hit with the heaviest snowfall have seen the largest increase in cattle sales.
"Being inundated with snow, it's a daily battle for them to get to their hay and to feed their herds," he said.
The problem is twofold for those who have hay and for those who don't. For producers with hay still in their fields, most are unable to reach it and for those who don't have any, transportation and cost are fast becoming a concern.
Gene Veeder, a rancher near Watford City and the economic director for McKenzie County, said many producers are having to go 300 to 400 miles away to find hay. With the added transportation costs on top of the already escalated price of nearly $90 per ton normally priced between $40 and $50 per ton many area producers have already reduced their herd numbers or are contemplating doing so, he said.
And as the calving season gets under way, Lardy said it will bring additional challenges to producers in terms of nutrition needs and acclimating calves to the hard, wet weather conditions.
"It's a fairly serious situation right now," he said. "We are heading into a period in the beef industry where there are lower cattle numbers, which usually means higher prices, which will help in the long term, but we have got to get through the winter first."