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Local auctioneers witness producers deal with drought conditions firsthand

Facing drought conditions throughout southwestern North Dakota, ranchers are being forced to make difficult decision about the futures of their herds.

Larry Schnell, manager of Stockmen's Livestock Exchange Inc., in Dickinson, said he's seen ranchers start to make those decisions in the last few weeks.

"Well we're busy because of the drought," Schnell said. "...The prospects for grass this summer don't look good at all. So producers have to decide if they are going to buy hay to feed their cows or sell their cows."

So far, at least a few producers have decided to whittle down their operations by selling off cow-calf pairs.

Schnell said with the grass situation this year and the lack of rain in the region, hay will most likely be selling at over $100 a ton.

"Even at that it's going to be hard to find," Schnell said. "Most of the time, that's not a financially prudent decision so guys are going to sell their pairs and that's what they've been doing."

Schnell said right now the cattle market is still good because the major drought area only affects part of the southwestern side of the state in comparison with the area they cover.

Several buyers from east of Bismarck, eastern Montana and South Dakota are still buying cows because they have gotten rain when southwestern North Dakota hasn't.

"You hate to see them sell pairs, but it's good to see that there's good interest in them and the market is pretty good," Schnell said.

Harry Kerr, manager of Bowman Auction Market, said there are nearby areas that haven't been as seriously affected by the drought, but producers are still concerned.

"We've had a little more moisture so we haven't seen as many moves down here," Kerr said. "We're border line. We're right on the edge."

Kerr added they would get busier if it doesn't rain.

"We'll get busier if it doesn't rain. Biggest concern right now is just getting to winter," Kerr said. "Just having enough grass to get through the summer."

Because of the high level of activity, Stockmen's, which holds sales on Tuesday's and Thursday's, placed a limit on the number of pairs that could be sold at the Tuesday sale.

Schnell said the reasoning behind the limit was because selling pairs can be labor intensive. When selling pairs they have to make sure the cows and calves are paired up correctly and keeping them together can sometimes be difficult.

Schnell said he's seen drought situations like this before.

"Back in 1979-80, that's the one I remember best," Schnell said. "We sold 1,000's of pairs, but at that time they weren't as valuable as today."

Because of the currently good market conditions Schnell said ranchers have been selling off their pairs, open cows, blemished cows and older cows, but if rain doesn't come then you may see producers sell more.

In fact, Schnell said it's possible that in order to get through the summer producers could sell all their cows and then buy their herd back in the fall.

Schnell said it's hard to see that become necessary because some producers have been building and breeding these herds for a long time and to have to start from scratch is tough.

"There are guys that have built their herds for generations," Schnell said. "That's just not that easy to replace overnight. It's not that they've got cows, it's that they've got the cows they want."