June 4, 2023

TOWNER, ND – Darrell Rice stood in a field of corn he planted in early June to be harvested and chopped up in the fall to feed the hundreds of cows and calves he raises in central North Dakota.

“It should be six, seven, eight feet tall,” he said, looking down at the stunted plants at his feet, their normally limp leaves curled tightly against their stems to save water in the summer heat.

Like ranchers across the state, Mr. Rice is suffering from an epic drought that is as bad or worse in the western half of the country than anywhere else in this extreme weather season.

A lack of snow last winter and almost no spring rain have created the driest conditions for generations. Ranchers are forced to sell parts of their herds that they have built up over the years, often at bargain prices, in order to stay in business.

Some won’t make it.

“It’s a really bad situation,” said Randy Weigel, a cattle buyer who said this drought could force some older ranchers to retire. “They have worked their entire lives to get their herd of cows where they want and now they don’t have enough food to feed them.”

Since December all of North Dakota has been colored in yellow, orange and red on the weekly maps of the United States Drought Monitor, which symbolize different degrees of drought. And since mid-May, McHenry County, where Mr. Rice runs ranches and farms, has been in the middle of a darkest red, which stands for the most extreme conditions.

The January 2020 to June period was the driest 18 months in McHenry and 11 other counties in the state since modern records began 126 years ago, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“I’ve run a ranch for 47 years, and this year I had to come,” said John Marshall, who runs a ranch near Mr. Rice with his son Lane in this sprawling county where Towner counties itself as the cattle capital of North Dakota. “This is the worst thing I can ever remember.”

Drought here and elsewhere in the west is helping to drive up beef prices in America’s grocery stores. But ranchers here say they don’t see this money – slaughterhouses and other middlemen are. If anything, said the ranchers, they lose money because they get money less from the forced sale of their animals.

The Marshalls have already sold about 100 cows and plan to sell at least another 120, which would leave them about two-thirds of their usual herd. “I’ve never had to do it,” said Mr. Marshall.

Mr. Rice’s corn, which is stored as silage later in the year to feed his animals, is so short that he couldn’t if he wanted to harvest now. “It’s irresistible,” he said.

If it does get some rain – a big if, like the forecast of continued heat and drought well into fall – the corn can reach six feet or half of its usual height. Even then, he would expect feed shortages and most likely have his cows weighed on the municipal ranchers’ scales off Main Street in Towner and then sold to another buyer.

“If we don’t get silage,” he said, “the cows go into town.”

Rachel Wald, who works for North Dakota State University, advises and supports ranchers, said cattle auction houses, called sale barns, have been very busy this spring and summer. “We have 2,000 animals walking down the road every week” in the county, she said. By some estimates, half of the state’s cattle may have disappeared by the fall.

For ranchers who have spent years building their herd’s genetics, this can be a huge step backwards. “Every year we try to improve our breed,” said Shelby Wallman, who has lived with her husband Daryl in Rhame, in the southwest of the state, for decades.

“It’s a calling,” she said. “You spend your whole life with these cattle. I can tell you tears will flow. “

North Dakotans have experienced drought many times. One in 1988 was particularly bad, though John Marshall and others who weathered that year said the current drought was worse.

Ranchers point to the diverse nature of the climate here – where a dry year or two can easily be followed by a rainy season – rather than talking about climate change. But climate change is happening in North Dakota, like everywhere else.

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“We are at the epicenter of a changing climate,” said Adnan Akyuz, the state’s climatologist and professor at North Dakota State University. The state has warmed 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1.3 degrees Celsius) over the past century, he said. That’s one of the biggest climbs in the United States.

The climate in North Dakota is expected to become even more variable, with more extreme rainfall and heat. And as elsewhere, droughts are expected to increase in intensity and frequency.

The conditions are largely very variable because North Dakota is so far from the oceans, which have a climate-reducing effect. When the state doesn’t get moisture from them, it relies on local sources, including lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, along with moist air that pours into the region from the Gulf of Mexico in late spring and summer.

But this golf moisture did not arrive this year. And the heat has dried up many of the local water sources. The result is air that removes as much moisture as possible from the soil and plants.

Signs of drought-stressed vegetation can be seen throughout McHenry County. Stunted silage corn like Mr. Rice’s is known as pineapple maize because the dense leaves make it look more like a pineapple plant. Elsewhere, soybean plants have flipped their leaves to reduce photosynthesis and therefore water requirements, giving them a paler green appearance.

And in the Marshalls’ pastures, the grass that would normally be green and knee-high is brown and stumpy.

The Marshalls rely on clean well water that is pumped into troughs for most of their cattle. But they and other ranchers also use watering holes that collect snow runoff and rain. And when the watering holes dry out, nutrients and other compounds in the water become more concentrated, which can make the animals sick.

In one of the Marshalls’ watering holes, the water level had dropped several meters. Ms. Wald from the university tested for sulfates and dissolved solids and told the marshals that the water was still good. But she noticed something else.

“Lane, one of the things I would look out for here is blue-green algae,” she said. In the midst of the heat, the organisms thrived and eventually released toxins that could harm the cattle. “If a bloom occurs, you have to take the animals out of here and find a new source of water for them,” said Ms. Wald.

Like other ranchers, the Marshalls bought supplementary feed. But as the drought is driving up feed prices, it will eventually make more financial sense to sell animals.

That was what kept the auctioneers busy. At a recent auction at the Kist Livestock Auction in Mandan, just across the Missouri River from Bismarck, ranchers stood in pickup trucks with trailers in tow, unloading cattle they couldn’t afford.

Tom Fettig and his wife Kim were there when they were 60, about half a herd that they helped their son on the outskirts of Bismarck. The animals were bought in February with the aim of fattening them by October, when they would be sold to beef cattle.

The drought has thwarted these plans. “We have only had her out on the pasture since June 1st,” said Mr. Fettig. “And there’s nothing left.”

Their haymaking was also miserable. In a normal year they would have 800 to 900 bales. So far this year they have only 21.

Inside the semicircular auction ring, the Fettigs sat on a bench, waiting for their yearlings to be put up for sale. They watched a parade of other animals come in and the auctioneer Darin Horner rattled the prices down with a booming buzz. Weights and prices flashed on screens above the auctioneer’s head.

“There’s a nice pair of oxen just outside the prairie,” announced Mr. Horner as the Fettigs’ animals in two groups of 30s were pushing the ring if they could have fed them all summer.

The Fettigs and John Marshall are fortunate to have their sons following them in the ranch business. But Jerry Kist, a co-owner of the auction barn, noted that older ranchers whose children have left the country were hardest hit by this drought, as were younger ranchers who don’t have ranch parents to rely on to help them to help established.

“They just don’t want to see these guys fold up and sell their whole herd of cows,” said Mr Kist.