By Colleen Brunner

“It’s hard, it’s stressful, but it’s nothing new,” says David Ollila, SDSU Extension Sheep Field Specialist, working out of the Rapid City, S.D. office. “You have to have a plan.”

Many farmers and ranchers in the tri-state area of northwest South Dakota, southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming have been struggling into their second year of a severe drought situation. But Ollila says that if they make a plan on what they are going to do if the drought continues and then stick with it, they can find a way out on the other side.

(Many) farmers and ranchers in this area know what to do in a drought situation, Ollila believes. But they have to be willing to follow the plan they lay out. SDSU Extension service helps with creating that plan with information as well as nitrate testing on forages, and livestock water suitability testing to determine whether the water will cause problems such as copper deficiency which causes polio.  

Ollila said the Cottonwood Range Research station at Philip, S.D. which records rainfall levels, has shown that since 2000 there have been 12 years where the rainfall in the three months of April, May and June was less than half the average for those important months.

“We are used to being in drought,” says Ollila. “There are two things that have caught people up though including the ‘new normal’ we got used to with abundant moisture from 2013 to 2015.” He said one is the fact that, with abundant rainfall in 2013 to 2015, producers became used to a The other is that the cost of operating went up, causing the producers to run more head to make the same amount of money.

Gary Deering, President of the South Dakota Stockgrowers, says he and his family have been fortunate in being able to hold on to most of their herd, and not have to resort to outside jobs to maintain the ranch. He lives and works with parents, Pat and Frankie, his wife Jessica, and three boys. But it hasn’t been easy, and they are making substantial changes to their operation, including buying hay, shipping some of their cattle to feedlots east river sooner than normal, and applying for specific programs such as the Emergency Conservation Program.

“This program is helping us dig a well and get a pipeline out to our pastures that have no water,” says Deering. “This will get water where we need it, and also help our grazing distribution.” Deering says they have also received some financial assistance through FSA due to their D3 drought designation to help with purchasing hay and send cows out to other areas.

“Someone told me several years ago, and I have found it to hold true,” says Deering, “That the sooner you start your drought plan and culling process, the fewer that will have to be culled in the end. So I have been keeping this in mind the last couple of years, even though, not unlike any other rancher, selling cows is one of the hardest decisions to make.”

Deering says he appreciates the Stockgrowers and also the Beef Council which oversees the beef checkoff program to help promote beef and fund research. He said that he is proud of how cattlemen, listening to each other, find ways to work together.

Deering says the biggest challenge to a drought is the unknown, the not knowing if this is the year it breaks or if it will go on.

“Multiple years can be scary,” he says. “We have seen many droughts in western South Dakota, and no different than this one. We could come out of it by receiving abundant moisture this spring, or it could hang on and be a three-year drought.”  

“Another year would be a devastating blow to our region, however, having the ability to adapt to the ever-changing conditions, will once again get us through this challenge, and into greener pastures.

Another Meade County rancher, Larry Reinhold who runs Lone Tree Ranch and Rainbow Bible Ranch east of Sturgis says things have not been good since they were hit hard with Storm Atlas.

“Our area has been in the grip of drought for better than two years now,” says Reinhold. This has put a tremendous strain on feed supplies, ponds, and reservoirs. The big dam they use for camp water activities is mostly dry and this “pushes the staff,” according to the owner.

The family lost all the fish in the big dam, including walleye up to 24” long. “You don’t get a fishery like that back overnight.”

They tried to keep young trees watered and lost a number of landscape trees. And they are plagued by prairie dogs which thrive on the short grass areas.

“We continue to trust the Lord and have seen people from outside the area step up to meet the needs,” says Reinhold. “We are going to try and keep our basic cowherd and we must maintain our saddle horses for the camp.” Reinhold says it is difficult to watch the “slow death” that drought brings.

Kevin and Collette Kirsch ranch in southwest North Dakota in Billings County, 20 miles north of Dickinson. They too have had to make changes and think about their long-term outlook.

“We had a severe hail storm in 2016 at harvest time and did not make a lot of hay in that year,” says Kirsch. Killing frosts up to June in 2017 and a hot and dry June and July, made the hay situation sparse, causing them to hay wherever they could, including crop acres.

“Government programs help somewhat financially,” says Kirsch, “But having the production is always a better return.” Kirsch, who has been a board member of the local CHS Grain Coop since 1993, says he has learned the struggles and benefits of knowing how crops are marketed, as well as opportune times to purchase inputs such as seed, fertilizer, and chemicals. 

The couple’s calf operation is run solely by them, with sporadic help from grown children or hired help. They have a cow/calf operation with about 125 cows which they have reduced to 100 head. 

“I am downsizing in three years by canceling all leased acres and partnership cattle,” says Kirsch. “We may continue with owned acres and cattle ‘till 2024 or quit before then.” The farm they bought in 1973 when he was just 19 years old, where he and his wife have raised three daughters and a son, will probably not stay in the family. 

“We have a strong Christian faith and believe that God sees us through all times, good or bad,” says Kirsch. “We trust in Him to provide.”

Ollila, as both a producer himself and as part of the SDSU Extension team, encourages farmers and ranchers to be smart. He says that if they make a plan, stick with that plan and look for any other ways they can make it through, that the end of the drought is in sight. It may be a while yet, but it will end.


Colleen Brunner is a freelance writer based in Newell, S.D. contact her at collenkbrunner@gmail.com

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