US drought concerns plague cattle, feed producers on northern plains

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/maerzkind
© iStock/maerzkind

Related tags Wheat

Drought conditions in North Dakota and nearby states may be setting up a weather market for feed crop prices, says analyst.

Details on crop stage and condition were released Monday by the US Department of Agriculture in the most recent crop progress report​.

However, a continuing drought reaching across several states in the upper Midwest, or northern plains region has increased regional feed prices and is drawing attention from cattle producers and potentially the crop market, said Frayne Olson, crop economist and associate professor with North Dakota State University.

The state saw initial problems when pasture conditions started to drop earlier in the season, he said.

“When they started drying up, you have to pull the cattle from the pasture to save the grass,”​ he told FeedNavigator. “The ranchers have had a struggle deciding what to do – they know they’re going to have to buy more feed, feed supplies are short and the feeding season is now going to be longer.”

Cattle feed options

Faced with a longer time on-feed and increasing prices, many producers have turned to controlling the size of their cattle or cow-calf herds, said Olson.

“They started culling the cow herd sooner – there’s usually a turnover rate, but they started doing that sooner – and then they started selling cow-calf pairs to reduce the pressure on the grasslands,”​ he said. “And to try and conserve some of the feed available.”

As conditions in the region have continued to deteriorate, producers are looking to alternatives including moving herds to other parts of the country and trucking in hay, he said. Some have also started to consider grazing areas planted in feed crops or harvesting what has developed for hay.

The wheat crop in some parts of the state is stunted and expected to produce poor yields, said Olson. “They want to hay that and use it throughout the winter,”​ he added.   

“There are a few questions on if they can do that with longer maturing crops like corn and sunflower,” ​he said. As the corn crop in some parts of the state moves into the key stages of development it does not look like it will be a good crop, he added.

However, there are challenges to turning some feed crops into feed if they are harvested early, he said.

“The challenge is timing, if the crop gets too mature then the nitrates or nitrogen that the plant is pulling from the soil starts to build up in the plant,” ​he said. “That causes problems from a feeding value with ruminant animals, so the timing is tricky – if you are going to try and hay it you want it to grow as high as you can to get the roughage you can, but not to let the nitrates levels too high.”

Weather market

Feed crops and wheat appear to be moving into a weather market, said Olson.

“You always have the chance of scattered showers, but if you look at extended forecast it’s [for] above average heat and looks like it’s going to remain hot and dry,”​ he said.   

Late July through early August are important development times for the corn and soybean crops, he said.

Even in the areas where the corn crop is short there is a potential for yield recovery if the crop had enough water, said Olson. “If it started raining tomorrow, corn would compensate and soybeans would too,”​ he added.

Although the state has seen an increase in feed crop production, the extent of drought conditions across the region has a greater influence on potential prices, he said.  

“North Dakota is having problems, and South Dakota, and Nebraska is having problems, western Iowa is looking dry – you pick up enough production that the markets are watching as we get into the key crop development [period],”​ he said. “If it was just North Dakota, in corn we’re a rounding error, in soybeans it would make a difference, but not much, but by the time you get the western growing region for corn and soybeans it does make a difference – it’s getting big enough that people are paying attention.”

Wheat market

Like cattle producers, the spring wheat crop has seen damage from the drought conditions, said Olson.

“The drought is parked over the spring wheat region,” ​he said. “Conditions have been slowly declining for the last six weeks.”

Currently, about 28% of the crop is rated as good and 4% at excellent, said the USDA. Nationally, the amount of the crop earning those scores is 34%, down from 69% a year ago.

“At this point, in the western part of the state, the spring wheat crop is done – when you get into central and eastern portion, you might see some improvements in test weight but most of the damage is done,”​ said Olson. Some producers who would typically see a yield of 35 to 40 bushels are predicting yields of 10 to 15, he added.

Corn and soy conditions

The center and western parts of the state have seen the dryer and more damaging weather patterns, said Olson. The eastern part of the state, which grows more corn and soybeans, is having a wetter season.

Condition overall for the corn crop has dropped slightly from last week and is down from last year, said the USDA. About 64% of the crop has been rated in good or excellent condition, while at this point in time last year about 76% of the crop was.

Results are similar for soybeans, with about 61% of the crop earning a good or excellent score, the department said. Last year at this time 71% of the crop had that rating.

However, the about 45% of the corn crop in North Dakota earned a good or excellent rating and about 40% of the corn crop did, the department said.

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