Minnesota Drought: Sun-parched land frets Pine River area farmers, ranchers
Low moisture has triggered a domino effect for feed and cattle
In what meteorologists are calling the seventh worst drought much of the state has seen, farmers are being forced to make drastic decisions to accommodate for uncooperative weather.
Pastureland right now is a valuable and shrinking commodity for farmers raising beef cattle.
"This is the worst drought I've had to deal with," said Miles Kuschel, of Pine River, who has been farming since the mid-1990s.
" One thing that helped us is we reduced cow population. That helps. It's not an ideal solution because as you reduce stock density you also cut your paycheck. Basically you're shooting yourself in the foot to save your other foot. "
— Miles Kuschel.
Kuschel has used rotational grazing to ration his pastureland, but even that has its limits.
"We use rotational grazing. That helps, but as we rotate through without any moisture the pastures don't come back," Kuschel said. "They don't regrow. We've utilized some low ground pastures and the lower ground is a little heavier, so the grass is denser in those areas. Otherwise the high ground sod is burning off. Once that burns off it takes twice the amount of rainfall to bring it back just to green."
"I don't see how anyone can survive it unless they have hay or silage from last year," said Jim Coffland, of Backus. "I have never in my years on this earth seen it this dry this early in the year."
Because grass is not still growing, especially after cows have already cleared a pasture, some farmers have already begun to supplement with hay. That's something they normally wouldn't do until the fall or even winter.
"We would start feeding hay in October usually and then silage in November," said Coffland. "I just got done haying the cattle. There's absolutely zero pasture."
Those who grow and cut hay are in dire straits as well. Fields that would normally produce high numbers of bales are under producing due to the lack of moisture. Most are not anticipating a second cutting.
"My brother's meadow is less than a third what it normally would be," said Larry Peterson, a Pine River farmer. "It usually gets four foot high. There's not much hay there compared to what it normally is. It's so dry it's unreal."
"My brother's meadow is less than a third what it normally would be. It usually gets four foot high. There's not much hay there compared to what it normally is. It's so dry it's unreal."
— Larry Peterson, a Pine River farmer.
The weather is so dry, Peterson didn't even try to get hay this year while all around him fields are bare and turning brown.
With fields producing only approximately one-third of their usual crop, hay prices have also skyrocketed.
"Hay costs are over double of what they were last year at $100 a bale," Kuschel said. "As we rotate through our last rotation this week, if we don't get any rainfall it's a real potential we're going to have to start feeding cattle. With a reduced level of hay out there it's going to get extremely expensive."
Cattle farmers are being forced to decide whether to ride out the drought and risk being stuck with animals that are expensive to feed, or dump stock by selling cattle so they need less hay to get through the year.
"We sent one load of cattle to the sales barn a couple weeks ago," Coffland said. "We have over 100 head and we sold 20 replacement heifers."
Coffland said he would normally sell in December through February.
"One thing that helped us is we reduced cow population," Kuschel said. "That helps. It's not an ideal solution because as you reduce stock density you also cut your paycheck. Basically you're shooting yourself in the foot to save your other foot."
Kuschel reduced his numbers by 10% and is already planning to sell another 10%.
Those who are growing corn are experiencing a similar challenge. While irrigation may be an option for those who have access to it, it is not a replacement for natural precipitation.
"Irrigation is a good supplement, but natural rainfall is key in order to produce that crop," Kuschel said. "Irrigation will get you by, but you still need that natural rainfall in order to really produce the crop."
While Kuschel has just managed to reach knee high corn by the Fourth of July, it took double the irrigation of a normal year.
"(We're using) 100% more irrigation," Kuschel said.
But irrigation only works for so long. Kuschel said there is a time in the year when the crop itself decides, based on the moisture it has available, how productive it will be. If natural moisture is low at that time, it can cause grasses to seed out early and stunt corn crops.
"Right now it's at that critical stage where the corn as a plant determines how much yield it's going to generate. If it's stressed now it'll set it back," Kuschel said.
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or email@example.com.