BISMARCK — Near the end of August, Bailie Graner, a 29-year-old cattle rancher south of Mandan, North Dakota, sent a Snapchat to her parents, also central North Dakota ranchers — on a property a little more than an hour and a half’s drive east in Kidder County.

Her photo showed a green tractor tailed by a taller forage wagon in a wide open field. In a different year, the field's corn would have reached near 8 feet high, obscuring the tractor and leaving only the top of the wagon peeking over the stalks. Instead, Bailie’s picture showed the tractor and wagon parked on top of burnt, shriveled-up crops that rose hardly a foot from the soil.

“I don’t think I’ll have troubles finding the wagon this year,” she wrote in the caption.

Typically, Bailie said, her corn crop makes around 40 bushels an acre. This year its produced just two. Other crops have been similarly abysmal. “We had more grasshoppers than we did peas,” she said.

Bailie's parents, Robin and Shelly Ziesch, say they’ve been luckier — most of their corn crop is several feet tall — but both parents and daughter have had to make contingencies to keep afloat during an extraordinarily dry year. Neither household has been able to stock up enough feed this summer to sustain their cattle herds through the winter.

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This growing season, Robin and Shelly have assembled a log, what they call their “hit list,” of all the cows that they can't afford to feed — close to 10% of their 600 head herd. Bailie and her husband, meanwhile, have run out of grazing grass for their smaller herd a month earlier than normal, and don’t have nearly enough silage stockpiled for the winter ahead. To keep their cattle alive through the cold, they plan to ship them off to a feedlot — accommodations that can cost around $2 a cow per day, and which, Bailie assured, will quickly add up.

The experience of Bailie and her parents, who each follow generations of ranchers in their family, is typical this year in central North Dakota, where a historic drought has forced stockmen to cut their herds, in some cases selling them off completely. All year, the U.S. Drought Monitor has shown nearly the entirety of North Dakota in some shade of orange or red, indicating very dry conditions. A cluster of counties in the central part of the state have fallen under a deep crimson hue that denotes “exceptional drought.”

Drought stricken cornfield at the Graner family farm south of Mandan. Kyle Martin / The Forum
Drought stricken cornfield at the Graner family farm south of Mandan. Kyle Martin / The Forum

In all that dryness, cattle feed crops like hay have come at a premium.

“You’d swear there’s gold in those bales, as much as they want for them,” said Bryan Bruner, a retired rancher and county commission chairman in McHenry County, which sits in the bullseye of the state's most severe drought conditions.

Many in Bruner’s area have had to turn to unusual crops to keep their herds fed. Others have taken to driving hours to wetter parts to haul hay back to their cows.

“You see a lot of innovative things on years like this,” Burner said. “Because if you sell them all, what do you live on next year?”

A mild winter this year brought little snow to central North Dakota. The season passed into a dry summer with sweltering temperatures unusual to the state’s northern climate.

Adnan Akyuz, the state climatologist and a professor at North Dakota State University, said the resulting drought is on par only with devastating dry periods in 1988 and the 1930s Dust Bowl. And though Akyuz noted that the current drought, which began last year, has been far more concentrated than the decade-spanning Dust Bowl, he said it could be a harbinger of less reliable weather patterns for farmers and ranchers in the years to come. Climate change, Akyuz said, has already seen the average temperature in North Dakota climb 2.6 degrees over the last hundred years, a larger increase than all but seven other states.

And this summer, Akyuz noted, has been one of central North Dakota’s hottest ever. Bismarck has topped 90 degrees Fahrenheit on 46 days, more often than any years other than 1988 and 1936, and passed 100 degrees 15 times, the most on record.

Bailie Graner and her daughter Hazel, inspect a corn test strip at her family farm south of Mandan. Kyle Martin / The Forum.
Bailie Graner and her daughter Hazel, inspect a corn test strip at her family farm south of Mandan. Kyle Martin / The Forum.

Under these conditions, Bailie, Robin and Shelly consider themselves some of the luckier ones. Ranchers in North Dakota say that the economics of their work have only gotten harsher over the years, as meatpacking middlemen have accrued price-controlling power in the industry. Diminishing returns for cattlemen have already driven many of the Ziesches’ ranching peers out of the field in recent years. For others, they said, the drought may be the nail in the coffin.

For anyone hoping to outlast this weather, the costs of selling off a part of the herd can be steep. Ranchers spend lifetimes developing their herds, meticulously breeding them for the most advantageous genealogy. Selling off a part of the bunch can quickly put a family into a financial rut: sales comes with capital gains taxes, which can make it hard to buy back into the business after offloading cows, and the Ziesches noted that payments to the bank get tougher to hit after a rancher has severed part of their production.

Nowadays, Shelly said, hardly any ranching families rely solely on their cattle business for income. Most find part time jobs to keep them afloat. In addition to maintaining the herd, Shelly works as a medical transcriptionist for the hospital in Jamestown, commitments that often begin her workday at 6 a.m. and leave her in the fields well into the evening.

But while some have sold out of the business in recent years, the drought has driven many ranchers to cattle sale barns this summer, where they've been forced. Kist Livestock Auction, in Mandan, has doubled the number of its auctions each week to accommodate the summer's volume.

Matt Lachenmeier, a field representative at the sale barn, said Kist is selling around 1,000 cows a week, close to 75% more than their typical volume. So far, they have sold close to 13,000 more heads of cattle than they would have by this point in a normal year. Lachenmeier said those figures are only going to climb in September, when more ranchers are expected to come to sell off their cows as winter approaches.

For the guys who can hold on, Lachenmeier said, this cattle exodus could drive a higher market for the years to come. But he said that a lot of the ranchers coming through Kist have been selling off nearly half their herds. For many people getting into their 60s and 70s, “they just won’t come back,” he said.

Sales at Kist Livestock Auction in Mandan have boomed this summer, as North Dakota ranchers look to offload cows that they won't be able to feed through the winter. Adam Willis / The Forum.
Sales at Kist Livestock Auction in Mandan have boomed this summer, as North Dakota ranchers look to offload cows that they won't be able to feed through the winter. Adam Willis / The Forum.

While recent showers came as a small answer to many North Dakotans' prayers, Bruner said the relief has arrived too late to make a difference for this years' growing season. And if more rain doesn't fall in September and October, he added, next year threatens to make this one look easy.

For Shelly and Robin, the drought adds another layer to the adversity that longtime ranchers already face in their hardscrabble field. Of the five friends and neighbors who belonged to their small branding group, which meets each spring to brand new calves, three have left in recent years. The couple sees fewer and fewer young people following their parents into the family trade.

“This is the best job in the world in my book, but if you don’t get paid, why do it?” said Shelly. “We’ve had a lot of years of not getting paid.”

For younger ranchers trying to establish themselves, like Bailie, the drought adds to an already precarious lifestyle.

“With our line of work, we have so little control,” she said. “It’s always a gamble. It’s always, unfortunately, a game of whether we can make it or not.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.