Drought forcing cattle to market
By MIKE CORN
WaKEENEY -- It's the lifeblood of his business, so Kyle Zimmerman never is far from his cellular phone.
Lately, he nearly dreads the idea of answering it.
He knows it will be a farmer backed into a corner by Mother Nature, forced to sell off part -- or all -- of his cow herd.
"There's no grass to put them out on," Zimmerman said of the cattle that have gone on the auction block at his WaKeeney sale barn.
On Tuesday, some of the cattle he was selling came from Ness County, where fall-brown pastures offer little in the way of nutrition for cattle.
It's a common story, where farmers continue to feed cattle in the hope of getting pasture-saving rains, the likes of which were forecast -- but didn't materialize for the most part -- last week.
Because of continuing drought conditions, farmers have watched as wheat crops withered in the heat or fragile topsoil has been sent skyward as winds swept through in something of a mini Dust Bowl.
Some farmers are getting fall crops into the ground, never mind the lack of moisture, while others are waiting as long as they can -- hoping for a crop-saving rain for a crop not yet even in the ground.
So far, Zimmerman said farmers have been able to avoid liquidating entire herds, although he's not sure how much longer some can wait.
Drought in the past two years already has resulted in selling off older, less crucial animals in a herd.
Zimmerman thinks nearly a third of the cattle in his trade area already have been sold off. Tuesday's sale sent even more to Iowa, Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana, where more abundant rains have fallen.
But prices have remained strong, something of an oddity as liquidation typically means lower prices.
"At least if you have to sell them, you're going to get a good price," Zimmerman said.
Still, it's a struggle for farmers who have worked for years, perhaps even decades, to assemble a cowherd with strong genetics.
But demand for Zimmerman's services has boomed in recent weeks.
"I don't even want to answer the phone any more," he said.
The drought, however, has unrelenting, even threatening to take out fields of wheat.
Drought and freeze have damaged fields farmed by Mat Seltman, who stopped briefly in Alexander before heading into northern Pawnee County to spray a field of wheat already released by crop insurance adjusters.
They estimated the field might yield a paltry 2 to 3 bushels per acre.
He plans to cut the rest of his crop, but he's not expecting more than 15 to 20 bushels per acre from the fields. While it's short, he's hoping a flex-head on his combine will go low enough to pick up the grain.
In a normal year, Seltman said yields would be closer to 50 bushels per acre.
He's also struggling with a lack of grass for his cattle.
Now, the task of feeding his herd takes twice as long, and shallow wells to water cattle and crops are struggling.
"The deep wells are holding pretty good," he said of wells that tap into the Dakota Aquifer.
In the Brownell area northwest of Alexander, conditions perhaps are even worse.
There, pastures are no better, but wheat fields are turning a sickly brown, sure to produce little -- if any -- grain.
"It's extremely bad," said Bob Wolfe, coordinator of the Midland Marketing elevator in Brownell.
That sentiment, he said, was echoed by a 96-year-old man recently, who said he doesn't remember it being this bad.
"On top of the wheat situation, everybody is concerned about the lack of water," he said.