ST. ANTHONY—The prevailing task at the Ellingson ranch this summer, as with most ranches across the state and nation, was water and combatting the drought. The Ellingson crew laid five new miles of pipeline, installed 13 new tanks and renovated an abandoned well to keep up with the demands of their cattle herd.
“Water is central to our management and, without it, everything changes. Pastures go dry, decreasing available forage to graze or bale to feed late [in the year], and some are rendered entirely unusable, because, if there is no water for the livestock to drink, the forage there still cannot be tapped,” said Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association (NDSA) and fourth-generation beef producer.
The National Drought Monitor ranks drought conditions from a D0-D4 scale: D0-Abnormally Dry; D1-Moderate Drought: D2-Severe Drought; D3-Extreme Drought; D4-Exceptional Drought. Much of the nation, with North Dakota being no exception, set records this year–records no one desired. North Dakota had the earliest onset of D4 conditions (most severe), the largest portions of D1, D2, D3 and D4 designations in our history, and the highest drought severity and coverage index in its history.
President of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association and New Rockford area producer Jeff Schafer is a fifth-generation producer. He recalled, “1988 is fresh in my mind as it was the first year, I had contracted oats and that went poorly due to the drought. There were so many challenges that year.” He said he sees a similar situation in this year’s 2021 drought, “Maybe one difference this year was that we came into the year a little wetter, but not much more than that of 1988.”
“A large part of this drought wasn’t just the limited forage, but access to drinking water and having the resources and amounts of water needed to haul to the herds to sustain them at healthy levels.” Jeff Schafer, NDSA president and New Rockford producer
“A large part of this drought wasn’t just the limited forage, but access to drinking water and having the resources and amounts of water needed to haul to the herds to sustain them at healthy levels,” Schafer said.
According to Schafer, most ranchers had to get creative and diversify when it came to feeding their herds. “Feed resources that have been used, that normally aren’t, are roughage such as cattails,” he said. “A lot of low ground was dry, and producers harvested the cat tails and even planted another forage crop in that ground.”
Without the grass turning green this past spring, Schafer explained, “Ranchers had to weigh the options: ‘Do we have enough reserve feed to tap into?’ or ‘Will we have enough production through the summer to be able to sustain the herd without having to sell?’ It was a very difficult decision.”
“Because the Stockmen’s Association runs our state’s brand inspection program, I’ve seen these decisions play out in real time. Many [producers] have reduced their herd sizes, because the forage isn’t there,” said Ellingson.
“There has been a 24-percent increase in sales at auction markets this year, with North Dakota ranchers selling 148,000 cows as of July. The average for an entire year is 200,000,” Ellingson explained.
Ellingson is referencing the 2021 Brand Inspection Report, which tallies the number of brand inspections at the state’s livestock auction markets and those in neighboring states where North Dakota conducts routine inspection, as well as local, registered feedlot, weigh station, scale, and production scale inspections.
The year-to-date inspection numbers from January 2021 to September 2021 total 980,872 head, as compared to the 821,264 that were inspected during the same period of 2020. That is a 19.4-percent increase in total brand inspections.
Numbers were most dramatic at the auction markets with a 26.1-percent rise in the first nine months. Inspection numbers are up at all but 2 of the 19 markets in the report. Cow inspections had the largest year-to-date increase among the livestock classes, growing 39.7 percent over last year.
“It’s a painstaking decision for families, because those cows are not only the foundation of their herds, but represent generations of selection and improvement that cannot be replicated overnight.” Julie Ellingson, NDSA vice president and St. Anthony producer
“It’s a painstaking decision for families, because those cows are not only the foundation of their herds, but represent generations of selection and improvement that cannot be replicated overnight,” Ellingson added.
On October 6, 2021 Ellingson testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on behalf of North Dakota cattle producers during an oversight hearing to examine the status and management of the drought in the Western United States.
In her testimony, she stated, “I’ve told you how cattle ranchers, grazing permittees, and others in the agriculture industry have not only worked to make landscapes more drought resilient, but also the hard decisions needed to be made when facing a threat so severe. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t thank Congress and USDA for recognizing that this drought is an extraordinary event requiring the available monetary relief for livestock lost to extreme heat, fire, and forage losses. Senator Hoeven has helped work and allow for additional allowances in the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program (ELAP) and for that we are thankful. While it has been an incredibly challenging year, there have been many examples of federal agencies, Congress, state government, and ranchers working together for the betterment of the land, water, and livestock.”
In response to testimony remarking on the immediate, medium-term, and lasting effects of the drought and more, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its plans to help cover the cost of transporting feed for livestock that rely on grazing. The USDA is updating the Emergency Assistance for Livestock (ELAP) to immediately cover feed transportation costs for drought-impacted ranchers.
ELAP provides financial assistance to eligible producers of livestock, honeybees, and farm-raised fish for losses due to disease, certain adverse weather events or loss conditions as determined by the secretary of state.
“We are far from out of this drought. The snow is very welcome,” Schafer said. “Snowfall is the only way North Dakota can get its rivers and dugouts filled with fresh water and help the parched ground. Hard to happen with rains without flooding.”
Schafer continued, “The young generation is what keeps me up at night and how can they weather this storm. We need to work to encourage these younger producers to come back into the business. We are going to have fallout from older producers; once they’ve sold their cattle, this is it.”