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Ranchers Adjust Or Thin Herds As Drought Continues

When Oren Lesmeister, of Parade, reaches down for a fist full of light-brown grass a dry clump of dirt easily comes up with it. 

“Right after fourth of July, typically, we’ll start haying this ground here,” Lesmeister says. “This year you can kind of see what it’s like—dead dry.” 

As we stand in his field, wind rushes in from a low-pressure system of dark rainclouds that blanket the sky—skirting around his property. The radar makes it look like Dewey County could get rain, But not a drop has fallen near him--instead landing farther north.  

“You think, ‘Boy, Dewey County is finally getting some rain—the Parade area—and the reality is we got nothing. We didn’t get a sprinkle,” Lesmeister says. “It’s been that way for months now.” 

Lesmeister spends part of his year in Pierre as a state lawmaker. He knows the issues in agriculture as a legislator and a rancher. He points to a land dam that should be full of water, but only has some stagnant moisture in it. 

“Pastures are getting depleted and short. Water supply is nil to void. As you can see that should be a damn full of water—looks like a green creek, is all,” Lesmeister says. “This is what guys are up against. There’s nothing for the cattle to eat.” 

Right now, his cows are drinking rural water. That is costing him more money. 

Lesmeister says this drought really started last September. He says some snow in October helped, but melted off quickly. The area got some spring showers, but nothing substantial. 

Drier conditions are leading some ranchers to thin their herds just to make it through the year. 

Baxter Anders is a co-owner of the Belle Fourche Livestock Market sale barn.  He says the last week of June 2020 they sold about 300 cattle. This year that same week they sold ten times more cattle - 3400 head in a week.  

“We just keep seeing more cattle coming and coming from a big area, too,” Anders says. 

Anders says for ranchers west of Belle Fourche this is a second year of drought conditions.  

“That’s kind of why it’s increased in sales,” Anders says. “That’s part of people’s thinking in some ways. Some people are holding on because maybe it is a little early yet and hopes that maybe the rain will come.” 

But the outlook for relief from drought conditions is slim. 

Laura Edwards is the state climatologist. She says this June was the driest on record and those conditions are expected to continue well into July. 

“Really, I don’t think we can overstate how severe, extreme, the conditions are right now and they’re going to be holding strong for the next month.”  

Edwards says this year’s drought is bringing consistent evidence of how a changing climate affects weather. In the northern plains—there are big swings in extremes. 

“Two years ago, from 2019, we had record wet conditions and now we’re in very dry conditions,” Edwards says. “We’ve seen this not too long in history—2011 was very wet and 2012 was very dry. These big swings in extremes are really kind of a story that we’re going to be living for a while.” 

Edwards says South Dakota does see a general long-term trend of wetter and warmer conditions. But that won’t help right now. 

Scott Edoff is the president of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association. He says many ranchers know if they see two wet years in a row a drought is on the way. 

“If you are patient and you realize this is a cycle—it’s a life cycle, so it’s not something really bad. It’s a life cycle and if you’re prepared for it you can expand. There’s a lot of opportunity there too.” 

Back in Dewey County, rancher Oren Lesmeister drives north on some pasture, looking at the elusive rainclouds. He says being ready for changing weather conditions sounds smart. But it can take years for ranchers to build back their herds. 

“You don’t just have a turn around the next year and go buy back a bunch of cattle because typically the prices are coming back up because pastures are green again and everybody is looking for some cows,” Lesmeister says. “It becomes a process to replace everything.” 

The state is stepping in to offer a bit of drought support for farmers and ranchers. Governor Kristi Noem is declaring a state of emergency in response. It lets farmers east of the Missouri River cut hay in ditches to use as livestock feed. The USDA is also releasing conservation reserve program acres to help with feed supply. 

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.