Allen Lund navigates his way across the prairie, carefully maneuvering his truck up and down the hills of his pasture on the doorstep of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
“The farther I get away from the yard, the better I like it.”
The longtime rancher from Selfridge has little problem driving over the dry ground with short grass, after he needed the pasture — which has easy access to water — to winter graze his 300 head.
“It looks poor now because of winter grazing, but a little moisture and it’ll take right off,” Lund said. “The grass is behind. We normally have a half-year’s supply of hay left over, and that’s almost down to zero. We’ve got to make up that extra half-year’s supply.”
Days later, a mid-April snowstorm blanketed North Dakota, dropping 13 inches of snow and about 3 inches of rain on Lund’s property, though some parts of western North Dakota got over 30 inches of snow.
Lund called it a good start to spring moisture, but there’s no doubt ranchers are hoping more is on the way, preferably a slow, steady soaking rain. Prior to the snowstorm, Lund’s property was classified as being in a moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Ranchers in the western half of North Dakota — though helped by the snowstorm — are entering the year with a shortage of feed because of the drought.
“It’s looking better in some ways, but other ways, it’s looking worse,” Lund said. “We’re going into this year with not as much grass. We’ll be turning out (our cows) later due to that.”
Last year, Lund watched as his stock dams dried up and his pasture grass was eaten down faster than normal. For him, it was the kindness of neighbors in farm country that made the difference.
“We bailed some of my neighbor’s straw, and we were very fortunate to be able to buy some corn silage to stretch our hay,” Lund said. “They were godsends.”
It was a busy summer. With limited access to water, Lund and his hired hand hauled water out to pastures every day, filling tanks in the yard from his well.
“Probably our biggest obstacle was the water situation,” Lund said. “We hauled thousands of gallons of water. We did it once a day for quite some time. We purchased more tanks and water line. The best stock dams we have dried up.”
Lund said another year of drought could put ranchers in a rough spot. He tightened his herd by culling 50 cows last year and sold his calves in November rather than waiting till February. And with getting only 25% of the hay he would normally take off his property, there’s always the risk of more cows heading down the road, as emergency feed is in short supply.
“We would have to sell some pairs, and we would do that early,” he said. “If you wait too long, you end up having to disperse even more of the herd. It’s not good, but you have to put your personal feelings aside. You hope there’s a (decent) price out there for those cows and you’re not doing it when everyone else is doing it.
“We’ve had to do it before. The worst part is it takes so long to build it back up again.”
But that’s part of the deal when it comes to raising livestock, Lund said. “There’s nothing worse than watching your cows go hungry. I would sooner they were somewhere they had something to eat. I couldn’t take seeing hungry, balding cows.”
The USDA’s Livestock Forage Payments (LFP) program did help with the purchase of hay, Lund said. However, it didn’t go as far as it normally would, as the price of hay tripled to $300 a ton — though he added he believes the price will drop.
“I never thought I would see (that price) in my lifetime,” Lund said. “It doesn’t go very far if you have to buy hay at $300 a ton. … It’s a supply and demand issue, and it’ll come down.”
Lund said he could only recall a more dire situation once in his 30 years as a rancher — when a prairie fire burned up a large chunk of his pasture in 2006.
“Every direction you looked was black,” said Lund, while driving through his pasture. “But it started raining after that. We got seven inches of rain and things grew.”
Despite the conditions, Lund sees good things ahead, as is his way. Maybe the ground will absorb more moisture than normal from the most recent snowstorm. Maybe a normal spring rain will green up pastures in western North Dakota in May. Maybe the weather will cooperate over the summer and pasture grass will go considerably farther than it did last year.
“Personally, I see a lot better year than last year,” Lund said. “You’re not supposed to worry about stuff you can’t control. No matter what happens, there’s kind of a bright spot some place. I always try to find that.”
— Chris Aarhus, NDFU Editor