Southwest North Dakota farmers, especially beef cattle ranchers, experienced a harsh year with not only the effects of the coronavirus but the summer drought as well, which caused for a drier than average growing season.
The majority of North Dakota received below-average precipitation and ranchers have reported up to 60% reductions in forage production on pasture, range and hay land, according to a report from North Dakota University Extension livestock specialists. As a result of the decrease in forage production, persistent drought and overgrazing impacts. 50% of the state’s pasture and range is considered in poor or very poor condition.
“In many areas, pasture and rangeland also experienced excess grazing pressure. These pastures may need extra time to recover before producers initiate grazing in 2021. Following the 2017 drought, grass development was delayed by as much as two weeks, primarily due to overgrazing and lack of moisture in the fall,” Livestock Environmental Stewardship Specialist Miranda Meehan said in a NDSU press release.
Byron Richard, owner of Richard Angus Ranch in Belfield, took the 2020 grazing season as not as disastrous as 2017. Richard runs approximately 50,000 acres between Beach, Sentinel Butte, Belfield and Fryburg with 600 registered cows and 1,000 commercial cows. Though the northern locations have proved to produce enough forage, in some cases where the forage production was not as adequate, Richard had to supplement different herds with hay and protein supplements.
“The drought really impacted us when we got into Stark and Billings counties here. Anything kind of (south) of the interstate was the line where you went south there, then it kind of definitely got dry — the driest area we had in our program is actual right here south of Belfield. Here it affected our production, we actually had to buy some feed where historically, we usually grow our own feed production,” Richard said. “We hadn’t really had to call any cattle; we were able to maneuver them around and take a few more up to that north end up there … But producers from around here, neighbors, some of them have had to call into their herds, cut their numbers back a little bit.”
Richard, 59, noted that with his program spread out more than most producers, some places did not experience the drought nearly at all especially in Beach and Sentinel Butte where precipitation was fairly decent.
The only major impact the drought had on Richard’s operation was the 30 to 40 pound decrease in weaning weights of calves.
“We’re probably a little bit better than we were last year at this time, not a lot but fairly close to comparable. We’ve got a little optimism in the fact that moving forward here as our supply chains get caught up, we’re still behind the eight ball a little bit when the packer plants got shut down, cattle were backing up, dress weights got heavier so they’re slowly grinding their way through that and I think that’s why we’re starting to see a little bit of improvement in the market," Richard noted. "Is it a get rich scheme? No. But I will point out that I feel that the producers are in better shape this year than they were last year for one reason — there was money put out there because of the coronavirus… to compensate for some of that drop in the market.”
Richard said they also try to rotate pastures to prevent overgrazing.
“Going into a twice rotation that helped. We used to do a single rotation for a pasture, now we try to do it twice over,” he said. “There was not a lot of big changes, but a lot of little changes that seemed to make quite a difference there.”
For young producers, Richard encourages them to utilize the Natural Resources Conservation Service programs through the U.S. Department of Agriculture while also reaching out to wildlife stakeholders to establish a partnership.
“In agriculture, we all need to find partners that we can associate with, agree with and educate them to be supportive of our programs. And wildlife, to me, is a no-brainer,” he said, adding, “That’s the one we should be trying to develop, where you get that connection with some of the urban folks that like to get out in the country and you can kind of show them firsthand what it takes to make our business run and why certain things are detrimental for us that they don’t understand.”
Not only did the drought create some frustrations with farmers, but the coronavirus pandemic proved to be its own battle with the market. Richard said when everything began to shut down, they ran into supply interruptions with packing processors.
Although the pandemic has caused issues for everyone, it also created some opportunity to get the customer closer to the producer. Emily Richard, Byron Richard’s daughter-in-law and full-time employee at Richard Angus Ranch, wanted to be able to provide meat products locally to customers who want quality beef.