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Burned up pastures mean more calves on the auction block

Drought takes toll on area cattle herds

Fine, brown dust rolls across pens at Gothenburg Livestock, kicked up by the wheels of a four-wheeler on a passageway between corrals.

“I hate to see so much dust,” said Wendell Brott, auctioneer and co-owner of the business along with his wife, Kathy.

This summer hasn’t been good for feeding cattle, period.

Sizzling temperatures and scant rainfall have baked pastures brown, leaving producers little choice but to haul calves and other cattle to sale barns early.

A month to two months early in these parts, Brott said, noting that large calf sales are normally in October and early November.

Many of the buyers so far are from out of state where the drought is not as bad.

“Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa in the last two weeks,” Brott said. “There are certain areas that had a little rain.”

During the local sale on Sept. 5, the sale barn owner said more than 1,500 head of calves sold.

Calves are selling in the $700 to $900 range, he said. That’s a bit less than years when forage is green and plentiful.

“The market is good even though hay and corn prices are high and it’s dry and dusty,” the sale barn owner said. “Usually during drought and bad conditions, everyone is penalized pretty hard.”

Throughout the summer, the auction ring at Gothenburg Livestock has been lively.

Brott said business usually slows down a bit in June, July and August with sales every other week.

“We’ve had weekly sales all summer and bigger herds of calves,” he said.

Although times are trying, farmer and rancher Keith Maline said there are some blessings.

Maline, who has a 300-head cow-calf operation with his brother Kevin, weaned and sold calves about a month early.

Average calf weight is about 100 pounds lower this year because of early weaning but Maline agreed that a healthy cattle market has helped ranchers.

In addition, ample spring and summer rainfall in 2011 meant more hay swathed and baled for the Malines. Less hay fed during this year’s mild winter also brought about some surplus.

Still, the Maline brothers have had to monitor wells more often and more closely.

Rainwater dammed in the canyons where they ranch 18 miles northeast of town dried up in the drought.

The dams serve as a back-up water system if wells malfunction.

“It’s been hotter and dustier so the cattle drink more,” Maline said.

Conditions this year have been similar to a drought 10 years ago, he said, but it’s been far hotter.

Because pastures have been nibbled or parched shorter than usual, the Malines started supplementing with hay last week.

With the calves gone this year, the cows won’t need as much feed, he said, noting that the herd will feed on cornstalks after harvest and hay through the winter.

Looking ahead, Maline said pastures are going to need more than normal rainfall this winter and spring.

“Time will tell and the weather pattern will change at some point, we just don’t know when,” he said. “It will really be bleak if it doesn’t change by spring.”

Just last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor showed Nebraska as having the most exceptional areas of drought in the country.

Drought conditions are expected to persist with no compelling indication that substantially above-normal precipitation will fall during the next three months, drought officials said.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman declared Dawson and 54 other counties as in a state of emergency because of the drought.

The declaration allows state workers to help with emergency situations that arise from the drought and frees up resources. It also gives greater flexibility to the Nebraska National Guard and the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency to use resources as needed.

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