Larry Ellison steps slowly out of his flatbed truck along a fence line to check his remaining cattle. The 77-year-old farmer-rancher walks with purpose, as the unusually short grass underneath his feet crunches like gravel.
“A good rain, and she’ll come back again,” says Ellison, always the optimist.
Nestled in a coulee near the Cedar River along the North Dakota-South Dakota border, Ellison’s 30 cow-calf pairs head to a small reservoir while he looks on. They walk through a muddy path that’s usually a small stream, and head south past a dried-up watering hole. The herd is looking to hydrate before the 90-degree weather sets in around noon.
They’ll continue the longer walk toward a bigger reservoir, but even its levels are down considerably. In these days of drought, it’s taking a little extra effort on everybody’s part.
Ellison figures to have done his part in sustaining his operation — at least for this year. He sold 70 of his 100 cow-calf pairs May 31 in Aberdeen, S.D., because of a lack of hay, as his property remains in extreme drought.
Reminders are everywhere. When he drives on his land near the Cedar River, fields come into view and hay bales are staggered much farther apart than in years past.
“Years ago on that bottom down there where we’ve got our dikes, you’d get 500 bales off of there,” Ellison said. “This year, a guy wouldn’t get 100.”
The drought has hit hard in the Upper Midwest, and a shortage of hay has been at the forefront of the problems. The United States Department of Agriculture released CRP for grazing on June 23 and then for haying on July 16 in an effort to provide ranchers with some relief.
Still, it won’t help everybody. Ellison doesn’t have any CRP, and the 17 bales parked near the dirt road heading to his farmhouse are all he has remaining to subsidize grazing.
“I’ll have to buy some,” Ellison said. “Most guys around Lemmon (S.D.) are putting up their wheat for hay. I ain’t decided what we’re gonna do yet.”
At Kist Livestock in Mandan, co-owner Jerry Kist sees herds tightening, and that’s made business a little busier. Nonetheless, Kist said ranchers in general have avoided unloading large percentages of their herds.
“It hasn’t been a serious sell-off,” Kist said. “A lot of culling of older cows with replacement heifers. They’re just culling pretty hard. Nobody is really selling off entire herds yet, but there could be some of that going on in the future. We’re definitely up against a real feed shortage.”
Kist said he envisions the next step will be ranchers selling off calves unusually early.
“We could see them moving in August already — I don’t think there will be a lot of weaning,” he said. “I think everybody’s banking on just trying to get enough feed to get by. You hope for a mild winter. If winter sets in early, it could create another tough sell-off. We sure don’t want that.”
Count Ellison among those looking for a positive change in the weather. Having been on the land since birth, he can recall a number of droughts. And while he couldn’t say where this ranked among those disaster events, he’s surprised it hasn’t let up yet.
“It would cloud up like it’s gonna rain, rain to beat heck for 10 minutes and then, poof,” he said. “It’s gone. … We’ve gone through some dry times, but it kind of cut loose and rained, and we always got by.”
Ellison tends to the ranch with the help of his son Travis, who is president of Dacotah Bank in Lemmon. The family has been on the land since Larry’s grandfather homesteaded two miles west of the current place in 1906. Larry farms and ranches — “about half and half” — and hadn’t planned to sell off 70 percent of his herd this year.
“You had ‘em all your life, then you’ve got to sell ‘em,” he said. “It really was a tough decision.”
Ellison said there’s a chance he may increase his herd next year if things get better, but he’s pretty positive about what will happen if another dry year hits the Great Plains — he’ll get out completely. And not just a sell-off of his remaining herd, but of farming altogether.
“Have to see what kind of moisture we get in the spring,” Larry said. “Doesn’t make much sense to put it in if there ain’t much moisture.”
— Chris Aarhus, NDFU