As drought intensifies, ranchers must decide: Sell cattle or buy feed?
Kevin and Carol Fritel who farm and have a cow-calf operation east of Rugby, N.D., near the town of Knox. They remember how their first year farming on their own was the great drought of 1988 and how this one feels worse, as they have hay to make it only through mid-July. They are weighing whether to sell their cattle herd, and whether to pull the trigger before others make the same move and flood the market. They won’t replant crops when they couldn’t get the first planting established.
KNOX, N.D. — In the drought year of 1988, Kevin and Carol Fritel started farming on their own for the first time. They say it’s drier today, and they must decide by mid-June whether to sell their cattle or buy expensive feed.
A lot has changed in 33 years.
The farm they’re on today is near Knox, N.D., about 12 miles east of Rugby, N.D. It’s an idyllic place, with chickens for eggs, bottle lambs for nearby grandkids who farm or work nearby.
Commercially, they raise canola, pinto beans, soybeans and wheat on about 1,800 acres, with a mix of owned and rented land. They have a commercial Angus/Simmental cow-calf herd with about 160 to 170 cows. They usually keep calves into the fall and background-feed them for marketing in February or March.
“We’re shorter on hay than any year I’ve been in cattle,” Kevin said. Normally, they have 500 large round hay bales when it’s time to take the animals to pasture. This year, they’re down to 200 and they don’t know if they’re going to pasture at all.
“We were out looking at pastures the other day. Just low spots are growing a little bit," he said. "Otherwise it’s brown. Really brown.”
They’re still background-feeding in corrals. They’ve discussed when — or if — to put the herd on pasture.
“We were just talking the other day: Should we sell half of our herd? Or buy hay?” Kevin said.
Kevin has worked to locate some possible hay to buy in the past few days. He’s working with a nutritionist.
“I”m trying to figure my cost of backgrounding them, just keeping them at home, versus selling and having to buy them back," he said. "It’s tough. I’ve talked to a lot of neighbors. Nobody has a really good idea of what to do.”
They’ve finally set up the herd the way they like it — good animals, young animals.
This year, if they cull anything they’re going to be good animals.
"So, struggling with selling," Kevin said. "I don’t want to sell a single animal.”
He has silage to hold him into August.
He feeds based on total mixed ration, a method of feeding cows that combines feeds formulated to a specific nutrient content into a single feed mix. They usually would have 500 large round hay bales in a lot but this year have only 200.
“I know the exact pounds we feed every day to every animal,” he said. The hay will get him to mid-July. Hay is very expensive, especially when it's going to have to come from some distance away.
Kevin, 56, and Carol started dating when they were in high school. Kevin graduated in 1983 and earned a diesel technology degree at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake. He took a mechanic job at M.J. McGuire Company. Kevin and Carol married in 1985, and also spent a year at Lake Region. Out of school, he worked full-time at an auto dealership in Rugby, and farmed 1,200 acres on the side.
The Fritels initially farmed with his father, but 1988 was the year he retired. Initially, it was a crop-only farm. Carol, who had grown up on a dairy, beef and crop farm about 42 miles away at Balta, N.D., has always been fully involved.
“That was the biggest drought we’d seen in our lifetime,” Kevin said.
“It brings back the memories — the dryness, worries about fires, and the crops and the cattle,” Carol said. “It’s worrisome.”
When the 1980s drought tightened its grip, the farm income was nil.
“I was working full-time as a mechanic at McGuire’s,” Kevin said. “That’s the only thing that kept us in farming. That steady paycheck. They say ‘you live on love,’ I think we kind of did.
“It was tough.”
Kevin remembers how thin the crop. They ran those John Deere “round-back” combines and a 16-foot wide straight header.
“We could park our single-axle trucks out in the field, and combine all day to fill the trucks," he said. "That’s the only time ever that those combines were too big for the crop. I think we averaged 8 bushels (per acre) for the wheat crop.”
But the drought ended in the 1990s.
In 1999 they had an opportunity to purchase the cattle farm where they now live.
In 1988 they had enough moisture to get their crop started.
“It just didn’t do anything after that,” Kevin said. “This year, we can’t even get our crop started. It’s so dry we can’t get it out of the ground.”
He’s mostly no-till. There are lots of 50% stands. He seeded wheat 2 ½ inches deep — as deep as he’s ever seeded. They got a .40 inch rain in late May. It got the rest germinated, but he isn’t sure it’ll survive.
“I always feel that our job as farmers is to get the crop out of the ground. Then after that it’s up to Mother Nature,” he said.
He planted soybeans 1 ½ to 2 inches deep, into wheat stubble. They seeded pintos — some into dry dirt, some into moisture.
“I just don’t see this crop making it,” he said on June 2, 2021.
The Fritels mostly missed the freeze damage some parts of the region had in late May, with temperatures in the 32- to 33-degree range. No long-range forecasts show rain in July. Pasture low spots are green but the high spots look like summer fallow.
“It’s not a pretty sight,” Kevin said. “I consider this year as bad or worse than 1988. The only difference, probably, is nowadays we have crop insurance. We’ve had pretty good yields in the past. We’ve got a little something to fall back on.”
Crop insurance is far improved from the 1980s. The worst case scenario is a half-crop or partial crop. He’s talked with neighbors about whether to replant.
“Absolutely not,” he told them. “I can’t even get a crop out of the ground (emerged) now. Why would I replant when it’s drier now than 3 weeks ago.”
If the rains should come in mid-July he’ll put in a millet or sorghum to get a hay crop for his cattle.
It would have to be “substantial rain” to turn things around. A half an inch a week wouldn’t do it.
“I’m going to be looking at the worst-case scenario — dry-lot (feeding) all summer, and hopefully hay and silage for the winter,” he said. “I’ve gotta sit down and run some numbers and see if it’s worth it. I want to keep my animals but don’t know if I should. If a guy doesn’t I should probably sell them earlier than later. Once the market is flooded we’re going to be giving them away.”
In the event of a crop failure, Kevin would like the government to consider allowing cattlemen to plant a forage crop
“It’s a year-to-year decision on how they handle that,” Kevin said. “If it’s a big enough disaster area, they say, ‘Well guys can seed hay on their prevented planting acres or acres without getting penalized.'”
Carol doesn’t think they’ll be able to keep the herd together.
“I hope we do,” she said, glancing at the herd. “We have a nice bunch heifers and second-calf heifers. We’re starting to build the herd up with young animals. They’ll probably be the ones that bring the best money, so they’ll be the ones we have to sell, but — fingers-crossed — maybe Mother Nature will give us some rain.”
Otherwise, there’ll be a trip to the Rugby Livestock Auction.
At the end of a visit, Kevin paused to indicate how different things really are. He would have been so miserable in 1988 that he wouldn’t have been able to handle an news interview.
Today, life seems too good for even a drought to upset it. The oldest of three children, Cody, 35, separately farms nearby. Travis, 33, is the ag instructor at Leeds High School. Their youngest, Brittany, teaches school in Rugby, where her family also owns the local Dairy Queen. Kevin and Carol have a “hoop house” greenhouse, where they produce garden vegetables for home, and give away or sell surplus cucumbers locally.
“Now, I feel like, ‘We’re going to get through it,’” Kevin said. “ We’ve been through all kinds of s… in our life, and we’re going to get through this like everything else,” he said, turning to Carol, “Right?”
“Right,” she said.