Drought Forces ND Ranchers To Sell Pairs

At a time when most Northern Plains ranchers see the best grazing of the season, this year many are forced to cull their herds. No rancher wants to sell cow-calf pairs in May, but that’s exactly what’s happening at Stockmen's Livestock Exchange in Dickinson, North Dakota.

In fact, herd culling has reached the point where co-owner Larry Schnell says the auction has two sales a week, which will continue through May.

Last Thursday Schnell said the auction sold 700 cow-calf pairs.

“We’re in extreme drought,” Schnell said. “We haven’t had a really good rain since September 2019.”

About 10 or 11 inches of rain fell in southwestern North Dakota that September, which helped ranchers “get through” 2020 with about half a hay crop, he said. Then this winter was “open,” which didn’t require as much hay to be fed as normal.

“But now we’re out of moisture in the ground,” Schnell said. “We’re out of hay and no grass.”

Over the weekend much of western North Dakota received rain – two inches at Dickinson and five inches in other areas – though it was by no means a drought breaker. Yet, it may have provided some short-term relief as Schnell says he only expects about 400 cow-calf pairs at this Thursday’s sale.

While few pairs come to town in May during a normal year, Schnell said they usually bring about the same money as a bred heifer in February and March.

“We’re seeing the same thing with these pairs this year. I call this market fairly good, and it sure could be a lot worse because this drought area is large.”

Schnell anticipated the drought would force cattlemen to act. In early April he told AgDay the auction was already seeing more cattle than normal.

“On our sale today, we'll probably end up with about 4,200 cattle, and if it was a normal sale today, we'd had maybe 3,000,” Schnell told U.S. Farm Report host Tyne Morgan the first week of April. “We've got like 700 cows and bulls today, which is very abnormal. Usually, we won't see that until after calving.”

Schnell said last week’s sale saw some 3-year-old pairs bring $1,900, and the market sold a lot of young pairs from $1,400 to $1,800 per set. Middle-aged and older cows topped at $1,375, and averaged over $1,200 per pair.

“That’s much better than we expected,” he said.

Buyers of pairs have come from as far away as Illinois, Kentucky and Arkansas. Schnell said the cost of transportation usually keeps those buyers away, but he says many are willing to pay that price for the high-quality cattle they can purchase in the Dakotas.


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