None of the solid, muscular calves and heifers unloaded for the Central States Fair’s Pen of Three contests Wednesday hinted at the drought that is devastating their home pastures.
“I’m pleased with their condition for the year we’re having,” said Jerry Hammerquist of Caputa. Hammerquist’s trio of Angus calves were born in January and February. They weighed in at an average of 729 pounds each.
“The cows are another story,” Hammerquist said. Cows grazing on rain-starved pastures are finding it difficult to maintain their weight and feed their calves, he said. “A lot won’t make the winter.”
Like many ranchers, Hammerquist knows there are tough decisions in his future. His irrigated hay fields along Rapid Creek have yielded fairly well this summer, but the hay’s value likely will exceed the value of his cattle.
“You can’t feed $300 hay to cows,” Hammerquist said.
Kirk Otte of Rushville, Neb., hauled his entry of three Simmental bull calves to Rapid City. The calves, averaging 644 pounds, won the light-weight division and went on to defeat five other entries to claim the bull calf championship.
Both early arrivals Wednesday, Otte and Hammerquist compared notes on range conditions while they watched other entries arrive at the fairgrounds.
In all, seven exhibitors delivered 22 pens of calves and heifers that they believe are the best representation of their cattle for the show. There is no primping or extraordinary rations for these competitors — they come right out of the pasture or corral to the show.
Dry conditions forced Otte to wean his calves early because “it’s dry as a bone” at home. The calves were competing with cows for the grass and “pulling down the cows.”
“They’re not packing any baby fat,” he said of the six-month old calves he brought to the fair.
Otte’s family runs Sheridan Livestock Auction in Rushville. He predicts that calves will be more valuable than cows if the drought doesn’t break soon.
“You’ll have to tie a bale of hay to a cow to get rid of them,” Hammerquist said, joking.
Hammerquist sympathizes with livestock producers who took advantage of the demand for hay last year. Plenty of last summer’s bountiful hay crop was sold to drought-ravaged areas in the southern United States, he said.
Those who sold hay for $80 a ton last year will have to buy it back for $250 a ton this fall, Hammerquist said.
“This young guy here learned some lessons,” Otte said, acknowledging that he knew he should have kept a hay reserve but cashed in on the demand for hay anyway.
The shortage of hay and its high cost is going to put pressure on many operators, Ron Frederick of Winner predicted. Frederick is the executive director of the South Dakota Beef Industry Council. He is already evaluating the future of his 100-cow operation.
“You really have to put a pencil to it,” Frederick said. Cattle prices have fallen as feed prices climb and more cattle head for the sale barn, he said.
Frederick is also concerned about the future of the nation’s cow herd because drought has spread across the country. Many ranchers don't have enough cash to invest more in feeding their cattle or won’t have enough money after liquidating their herds to rebuild, he said.
“Now that prices are dropping, many are in a pickle,” Frederick said. “They’re running out of grass and cash. I’ve talked to a lot who won’t make it another year.”
Kadee Hande, livestock coordinator for the Central States Fair, was pleased with this year’s entries in the Pen of Three show, especially given the drought.
“Lots of people are hauling water,” Hande said.
New Underwood rancher Dale Boydston is one of those. Boydston has been hauling water since mid-July to an 800-acre pasture that is out of water.
Between buying hay and hauling water, any profit he might have expected from his cattle herd is gone this year.
On Wednesday, Hugh Ingalls of Faith took home the show's overall championship with his three bred heifers. He was pleased with his cattle’s showing, but the drought wasn’t far from his mind.
“Dry grass puts on the weight, but it will run out,” said Ingalls, who is traveling 50 miles to put up Conservation Reserve Program acres for hay. “We’re scratching for feed.”
Ingalls said the drought will force him to make the same management choices his competitors will face this fall.
“We’ll wean earlier and cull a little deeper,” Ingalls predicted.