October 8, 2012 in Region

Drought forces ranchers to sell calves


BILLINGS – Some ranchers in Montana are selling calves early after a summer that left them battered by drought, fires and high feed prices.

Tim Kiefer has a beef ranch north of Forsyth. He told the Billings Gazette that since the first of April, he’s had just two inches of rain on his land. That means his pastures that yielded 1,200 round hay bales last year couldn’t muster even one this year. The dry weather left his cattle with little forage, so he weaned his calves and shipped them to sale yards five weeks earlier than normal.

Kiefer isn’t alone. Ranchers across Montana low on food, water and even fences in areas burned by fire are selling early. The number of cattle moving through Billings and Miles City auction yards was up more than 1,000 head a sale compared to the same dates a year earlier.

That means they’re selling with less weight – about 185 pounds less per animal – and that’s less money for ranchers. Nearly $2 a pound less, Kiefer said.

“The biggest reason for it has been drought conditions, reduced hay forage and hay prices that are pretty expensive,” said Jay Bodner of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. “People are looking at their bottom lines. I’ve heard of a lot of light calves coming in early. Prices are pretty high, but when you take off 200 pounds, that’s a pretty significant loss a guy has to take.”

Montana’s cattle economy generally produces more than $1 billion in sales a year.

The drought has also hiked hay prices. The feed has become so expensive that Kiefer, who also raises winter wheat, said he chose to bale his wheat crop this year and use it for animal feed so he won’t have to buy hay.

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