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Cattle across the region come to shelter as pastures dry up

Cow-calf producers had plenty of time to bring cattle from summer pastures, to shelter around farmsteads and to fenced corn stubble fields for late grazing prior to winter. Northeast South Dakota farmer Wally Knock said he has plenty of feed despite a dry late summer.

A bunch of black Angus cattle come into a corral after as the farmer shuts trailer door behind them.
Wally Knock closes the corral gates as he unloads the last batch of beef cows in the family’s 175-head cow-calf operation. He and son Jarod finished bringing the herd home from summer pasture on Oct. 26, 2022, which is the typical time for the task. Photo taken Oct. 26, 2022, near Willow Lake, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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WILLOW LAKE, S.D. — November is usually when the cows come home, and this year is no different.

A working farmer in a Dakota Vision Ag ballcap, and an Agtegra Cooperative jacket, stands in a corral, flanked by the cow herd he's just brought into winter shelter at his farm near Willow Lake, South Dakota.
Wally Knock, 63, and his family operate a diversified livestock and crop farm, including beef, sheep and swine. They brought the beef cow-calf pairs into shelter in late October, and have accumulated adequate feed for the winter. Photo taken Oct. 26, 2022, near Willow Lake, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“It’s time to bring cattle home,” said Wallace “Wally” Knock, on Nov. 3, 2022, in his who farms in a diversified livestock and crop farm with his family near Willow Lake, South Dakota, in southern Clark County. Several Knock family members work in the family’s contract hog finishing operation. The Knocks also have a flock of ewes.

The family had started to bring cattle home in October.

“We weren’t quite as bad as some, where we had to remove them because of grass, but there were several pastures where we were starting to run out of water,” Wally said. “Stock dams were drying up. We’ve basically gone August and September with no rain.”

A farmer at left closes a gate on a group of cows and calves as his Border collie watches attentively from the right.
Farmer Wally Knock on Oct. 26, 2022, gets a little backup from the family’s border collie as he brings the last load of cows into winter protection after cows and calves grazed on summer pasture about 30 miles north of the family farmstead at Willow Lake, South Dakota. Photo taken Oct. 26, 2022, near Willow Lake, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Knocks bring the cows and calves home and wean the calves and turn the cows out on corn stalks for fall and winter grazing, until the snow flies.

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On Nov. 1, Knock was picking up corn stalk bales on a field that isn’t fenced and consequently isn’t able to be grazed.

“We bale up the corn stover and take that home to feed the cattle during winter,” he said.

The Knocks have about 175 cow-calf pairs. They usually keep the calves and background feed them and sell the steer calves in January and the heifer calves in April.

“The cycle starts over again; we start calving in April and go through it all again,” he said.

It was a strange year and a far different fall from the last.

“Last year in October (2021) we had 10 inches of rain,” Knock said. “We had a lot of fall moisture.”

The cornfield he was working in on Nov. 1 had had a significant amount of prevented-plant insurance activity.

“It was too wet to actually plant,” he said. Instead of corn, he seeded it to millet or other crops that could be baled through the summer. “That was one source of feed we probably wouldn’t have had in a normal year.”

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The crops were “decent,” despite the late dryness. The Knocks got three cuttings of alfalfa.

“Sometimes we get four,” he said. “We have adequate amounts of hay and forage to feed the animals.”

Black and black baldie beef cows stand behind a gate in a corral after coming home from summer pasture.
Cows that had been on summer pasture on Oct. 26, 2022, are brought to winter shelter on the Wally and Kathy Knock farm near Willow Lake, South Dakota. Calves will be weaned and cows turned out on corn stubble fields as long as conditions allow. Photo taken Oct. 26, 2022, near Willow Lake, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Knock gets a wider perspective on the region, in part as he sits on the board of Agtegra Cooperative. He also is chairman of the Clark County Commission. Knock said it appears some areas to the west and south are drier.

“It seems like it was an ‘all or nothing’ year,” he said. “You either got a 5- or 6-inch rain, or you got nothing.”

Here is the perspective of sale barn officials across the region:

North Dakota

Larry Schnell, president of Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange at Dickinson, North Dakota, said most of the cattle are in good shape.

“I think most are bringing them when they would on a ‘normal’  year,” he said, while acknowledging “the last several years have not been normal years.”

A few ranchers left the cattle in the pastures a little longer, but most were bringing them in to give the grass some recovery for spring.

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“It’s dry,” Schnell said. “But most had a real good hay crop. There are some exceptions.”

A large rock carries the words: "The Knock's" at the entrance to a farmyard.
The Wally and Kathy Knock farm in Willow Lake, South Dakota, is a diversified operation, with significant beef, swine and sheep operations. This time of year, the Knocks bring the cattle home from summer pastures up to 30 miles away. Photo taken Nov. 3, 2022, near Willow Lake, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The region generally is “definitely short” of moisture. He said most cattle producers would like to see some snow. Winter snows sometimes don’t contribute heavily to the moisture for the grass, but a trend of precipitation is welcome.

“You’ve gotta prime the pump with something,” he said. “That’s what the spring storms did this year. You’d like to see that rather than fighting through” dry conditions.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service on Oct. 30, 2022, rated North Dakota pasture and range conditions as only 31% good to excellent. Only 45% of the stock water supplies were then rated adequate or better.

Minnesota

“Everybody’s got half half a herd and twice as much feed,” as normal, due to cutbacks from recent drought years, said Mitch Barthel, owner/auctioneer, Tri-County Stockyards at Motley, Minnesota, and Perham Stockyards Inc., at Perham, Minnesota.

Producer are starting to rebuild the herds after the 2021 drought.

It takes time,” he said.

Most of the cattle herds are in from pasture, although a few were still gathering them up. Some had saved some nearby pasture for the cows.

“We had some guys call to buy (cattle) to put on corn stover, in areas where they grow corn,” he said.

Hay yields in his area had been strong and some hay had been shipped out to dry areas of Texas, he said, noting areas 150 miles to 200 miles farther south are dry.

A bale of hay, at far right, feeds Angus calves brought in from summer pasture to a farmstead shelter, prior to winter weather.
Angus calves brought home from summer pasture on Oct. 26, 2022, get used to their winter environs in the corrals at the Wally Knock farm near Willow Lake, South Dakota. The mother cows graze on corn stover in a nearby field. Photo taken Oct. 26, 2022, near Willow Lake, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Farther south, Jim Ibberson, field man and yard man at Sleepy Eye (Minnesota) Auction Market, said feed supplies look strong, in part because of the government making some land available for hay. The area has relatively little pasture, but some pastures couldn’t be used because dugouts were short on water. The corn crop in the Sleepy Eye area was strong and producers made a lot of corn bedding, he said. The barn has Wednesday sales and has feeder cattle sales every third Saturday.

NASS rated Minnesota pasture condition rated 39% good to excellent on Oct. 31. Topsoil moisture was rated 48% “adequate” to surplus.

South Dakota

Dan Piroutek, of Milesville, South Dakota, serves as a field man for the Philip Livestock Market and Belle Fourche Livestock Market. He said hay availability in the Philip area is as short as they’ve been for some time. Most of western South Dakota is “pretty dry,” although there had been some moisture about 50 miles north of Faith.

“Pastures are just grazed off,” Piroutek said. “They’re as ‘clean’ as they’ve been for a long time.”

Many ranchers are buying hay for $150 to $225 a ton, depend on local availability. A lot had been hauled from the north and east. Stock cow sales brought $2,800 per animal at Philip on Nov. 5. Eastern Montana and Wyoming had a better moisture start than South Dakota, so they had better hay availability this year. Water availability isn’t a constraint because most producers have rural water available.

A flock of curious ewes edge toward a visitor in a farm pen, which includes outbuildings and a silo.
Besides a 175-head cow-calf operation, the Wally Knock family at Willow Lake, South Dakota, has a set of hog finishing barns and a ewe flock. Photo taken Oct. 26, 2022, near Willow Lake, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Only 13% of the state’s pasture and range were rated good to excellent on Oct. 31. 2022. Topsoil and subsoil moisture were rated only 15% and 17% “good to excellent,” respectively, on that date.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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