Drought shrivels herds
Published: Thursday, September 27th, 2012
In his 30 years ranching, Tim Allen has seen some dry years and endured some tough times.
The summer of 2012 ranks at or near the top of those tough times.
Decimated by drought, ranchers throughout Custer County have experienced dams, creeks and wells that have gone dry, a severe lack of hay and pastures with little to no grass.
“It’s just one of those deals,”âï¿½ï¿½Allen said. “You have good times and you have bad times. If a guy holds firm, it will even out in the long haul. It always does.”
Allen runs 100 head of cattle on leased land east of Hermosa, on the edge of the Badlands. The drought has cost him his summer lease pasture, as the owner needed the pasture himself. Allen said his cows are thinner than they usually are, as well.
Allen lives near the end of Battle Creek, which is also used for irrigation. That, combined with the lack of rain, has caused the creek to nearly stop running altogether and kept it from flowing into the Cheyenne River.
“Battle Creek is pretty well dry. It’s down to such a slow trickle, you couldn’t float a red Solo cup down the river,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.
Stock dams are also dry, and the ones that aren’t dry are so muddy cows are getting stuck in them, Allen said.âï¿½ï¿½Some ranchers have had to fence off muddy stock dams because of cows getting stuck in them and dying.
Allen believes he will lose 10 to 15 percent of what he usually makes during a normal year.
Dave Colburn has yearling cattle on a ranch east of Buffalo Gap, and said his yearling heifers were 50 pounds under average this year, which amounts to a loss of around $70 a head what they should have been.
“It’s one of the worst (droughts),”âï¿½ï¿½Colburn said. “If we don’t get any rain we will run out of water for sure next year.”
Colburn said he had to sell most of his cattle two weeks early, as the grass is dried up and water is scarce. Many others have weaned their cattle and are working to finish off their weight before they sell them, which usually doesn’t happen until the middle of next month.
Getting water to cattle in a drought can be an expensive proposition, sometimes requiring pipes on the ground that can be costly. The lack of hay is another concern, and a costly one. Colburn, who said he feeds his cows hay in the winter, doesn’t have any for the coming winter.
Leonard Wood, who has 350 head of cattle near Argyle, said he got only four bales of hay from land that normally grows enough for 200 to 300 bales.
As a result of that, he is forced to buy hay at prices 40 to 50 percent higher than normal from far away places, again due to the drought. Wood says he would normally pay $150 a ton for alfalfa, and is now paying $220 plus delivery costs. For grass hay, the cost is normally $80 to $100 a ton, and is now as high as $180 plus transportation. Wood, like Allen, has had to give up some leased land early.
“This is about as bad as it gets around here,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.
The drought has cost Wood a pretty penny because he has had to haul in hay, although he said he has gotten lucky that his other pastures still have grass on them. He said he can’t put a dollar figure on the amount of money the drought has cost him.
“Iâï¿½ï¿½don’t even want to think about it,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.
Ted Williams, who grows hay and runs cattle near Fairburn, said the drought has cut down the hay he could cut, the grass available for cows and has forced him to haul water all summer.
“I’ll probably be selling cows a little bit earlier,”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “It’s probably not the worst (summer) but it ranks up there pretty high. Next year will tell the tale.”
Colburn said the ripple effect of the drought will cause him to buy cattle back—but not before he looks at the cost of feeding them for the winter to see if the purchase will be justified.
“Iâï¿½ï¿½might not buy any,”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “I will have to see what spring brings. I might not have any water for them to drink in the spring.”
Allen said since he lost his summer lease, if there is no moisture received, he won’t have anywhere to put his cattle next summer. He also won’t have anything to feed them. Most ranchers want precipitation this winter—but not too hard of a winter—because that will force them to feed cattle cake and hay they don’t have.
“When stuff like this happens, human nature dictates people are going to have to start to raise prices,”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “It’s going to make it tough. You just have to kind of bear with it.”
Many ranchers and farmers could get help with their problems through the passage of a farm bill, federal legislation that covers a wide variety of programs, including crop payments, drought assistance and other help to producers. The current farm bill expires at the end of this month, and a new bill has been hung up in Washington, D.C., for months.
“These politicians are jacking everything around for so long, if it comes, it comes,”âï¿½ï¿½Wood said.âï¿½ï¿½“I’m sure it would help a lot, but it’s got to get passed.”
Allen said he doesn’t think agriculture needs such programs and believes the people who really need help don’t get it, and vice versa.
“That money comes from somewhere, and where it comes from is my taxes,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.
Whether or not a farm bill gets passed, all of Custer County and the rest of the Southern Black Hills ranchers will do the best they can to get by, all the while hoping for some precipitation.
“I just consider it part of the business,”âï¿½ï¿½Allen said.âï¿½ï¿½“I have too much Irish in me. I get my dander up and it makes me push on a little harder.”
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