Ranchers in North Dakota have been forced to sell off their herds at historic rates. Now they're worried they won't have enough feed to keep their remaining cows alive this winter.



A megadrought is hammering almost half of the U.S. One of the hardest-hit states is North Dakota, where the crisis is drawing comparisons to the Dust Bowl. Ranchers there are being forced to sell off their herds at historic rates, and they're worried they won't have enough feed to keep their remaining cows alive this winter. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Towner, N.D., proudly boasts it's the capital of the state's cattle country. Joey and Scott Bailey own a slice of it, a remote ranch about 60 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border.


SCOTT BAILEY: Come on, girl.

SIEGLER: After feeding, sitting in their kitchen, they're trying to figure out how they'll get through these next few months.

S BAILEY: Any of your prairie hay, just your grass hay that we would spend $30 a bail, people are spending $150 a bail, and they're driving 250 miles to get it.

SIEGLER: The couple sold 20 cows a few months back because they couldn't afford to keep them fed. It's been so dry, they could barely make any hay.

JOEY BAILEY: We didn't have any rain last fall, and we had hardly any snow. And we had a super-warm winter, which, yeah, we were excited about. But when we don't get snow in North Dakota, that hurts us a lot in the spring because we need the snow to make it grow right away in the spring.

SIEGLER: So they may have to downsize even more just to stay afloat through winter. The historic drought has put a serious strain on forage, meaning hay and feed are at a premium.

S BAILEY: So you're fighting with your neighbor, your friend, the guy down the road, you know, because there's only so much feed out there. It's extremely stressful.

SIEGLER: Scott is in his early 40s, Joey in her late 30s. It's hard enough to get young people to stay in agriculture, even in normal times. And they worry this drought will cause even more of their neighbors to have to take on 8-5 jobs in town or just get out of the business altogether. You can tell Scott particularly feels this pressure. His great-grandfather first settled the family out here.

S BAILEY: They made it, and them were a lot tougher times because if they wouldn't have made it, we wouldn't have had a family farm to be around, or I wouldn't be a fifth-generation rancher.

SIEGLER: Just like in every other bad drought cycle - the Dust Bowl, 1988 - ranchers here are trying to look at this crisis philosophically. A few miles east along highway 2 on his family's farm, James Green says you just have to keep going, adapt and survive. There have always been cycles of punishing drought.

JAMES GREEN: Honestly, I'm going to plan for next spring to be like a normal spring because if you doomsday it, you're just going to be doomsdaying (ph) the rest of your life.

SIEGLER: Green is adapting by making hay bales out of failed crops rather than drive the 250 miles for expensive hay.


SIEGLER: He drills into a bale to get samples to test for nitrates. He wants to make sure there aren't any harmful contaminants from farm fertilizers.

GREEN: You just don't want to turn your cows out here and get them sick. And you want to know what they're eating.

SIEGLER: An endless blue sky with big, puffy white clouds above him, Green is standing in a field of mostly brown stubble.

GREEN: I've never seen a June or July as hot as we had it. And it just - literally, these plants would get, you know, four or five inches tall, and they'd burn off.

SIEGLER: Look closer, though, and there are little shoots of green grass popping up. It did finally rain some - not a drought-buster but life-saving rains, at least enough to make James' 72-year-old mom Gwen, who's standing behind him, smile in relief.

GWEN GREEN: If we can get a month of grazing here, that's a godsend.

SIEGLER: It's also been a godsend having her sons around to keep the farm going. Her husband passed away last year. She says they're doing what they've always done - getting creative, finding unconventional feed. She also got some grant money to buy new, more efficient watering systems. But this drought also feels different.

GWEN GREEN: This is much worse than anything I've been through in 44 years out here. James asked me one day, what would Dad do? I said, Dad hasn't seen anything this worse either, so we just have to do what we're doing.

SIEGLER: Keep doing what they're doing. If you get depressed, they say, you're not going to make it. Still, the long-term outlook from climate scientists isn't good. North Dakota is already a place of extremes. State climatologist Adnan Akyuz says the effects of climate change may be even worse here than other states that are closer to the oceans.

ADNAN AKYUZ: I would say it is the epicenter. With the 2.4 degree Fahrenheit per century, it is one of the highest in the nation.

SIEGLER: North Dakota is nearly 2.5 degrees warmer than it was a century ago. Akyuz says, just back in 2019, North Dakota had one of its wettest years on record, only to be followed by 2021's historic drought and heat waves. This September 30, the capital, Bismarck, hit 98 degrees.

AKYUZ: North Dakota has the geographical center of North America and makes it very prone to these climatic shifts.

SIEGLER: Climate change doesn't seem to come up much when you talk to ranchers. But maybe when you're just trying to figure out how to last the next few months, it's hard to think about planning for a future of more extremes. Even if this does turn out to be just another bad cycle, it will take ranchers on these windswept plains years to recover.

DARYL LIES: It's North Dakota wind. Yeah, it's - we have a North Dakota wind just about every day.

SIEGLER: In a two-bar blip of a town called Granville, I meet Daryl Lies. He's the president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau. He pulled over here in between meetings with fellow ranchers. Lies says the sell-offs are crushing to see because ranchers spend decades building up quality genetics in their herds.

LIES: Just imagine if you had a job for 20 years, and now you had to go to another job, and your benefit package ain't as attractive, and your pay scale ain't as good because when you have to buy livestock back, you might not get the same quality that you had.

SIEGLER: Ranchers have already sold off nearly 25% more cattle than last year. Drive around the state, and it's an ominous yet all-too-familiar scene - trailers lined up outside the auction barns. It's the sound of wealth being drained from the prairie.


SIEGLER: Some barns have reported a tenfold increase in sales. Here in Devils Lake, men clutching whips heard a trove of Black Angus into a chute, opening a huge, hulking metal door.



SIEGLER: The anxious cows, white tags clipped to their ears, are funneled into a fenced pen and sawdust floor.

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: Here we go. (Unintelligible) $60.

SIEGLER: It is a short-term boon for sale barns, but no one is celebrating. In the back office, this barn's owner, Jim Ziegler, sighs as he swats flies off a desk cluttered with paper and receipts. He figures a lot of his older customers won't be back next year.

JIM ZIEGLER: The cost is just prohibitive. Around the coffee table over there in the cafe, the guys talking around about hay costing $100 a bale. That isn't something you do if you have a large cowherd.

SIEGLER: Ziegler opened this barn in 1988, the last real bad drought year. In those days, ranches tended to be smaller, he says, and people could figure a way through. Now it just costs too much to keep a big operation going. He says this crisis feels different.

ZIEGLER: People just did not get in a position where they felt comfortable going into winter, and there's going to be more and more of that. There's going to be more decisions that have to be made here as we go through the next 30 days.

SIEGLER: Make-or-break decisions as the prospect of another dry winter looms. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Devils Lake, N.D.

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