By Curt Thacker and Carla Harms

BridgeNews Service

KANSAS CITY (B)--Severe drought conditions in the U.S. Plains, much of Montana and Wyoming and parts of the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan continue to plague cattle and other livestock producers. Some liquidation of the cow herd is said to be taking place, but so far mostly in the form of deeper culling than would normally occur. In many areas, calves are being weaned and sold two to three months earlier than normal.

The number of cows being liquidated is impossible to determine at this time. However, sources said many ranchers earlier in the year began culling older cows and animals that showed any condition or health problems. The culling was done to reduce the load on pastures and rangeland and to remove cows that ranchers felt might be unable to survive the harsh conditions.

The drought also is forcing cutbacks in cow numbers at a time when many cattlemen might otherwise have been planning to expand their herds. Cattle producers across the United States had reduced their herds the past few years in response to low cattle prices. But, beginning last year and continuing through this year, feeder cattle prices had increased to profitable levels.

Instead, some producers, particularly those in areas hardest hit by the drought, say they must soon make the difficult decision whether to sell the rest of their animals. Some said their decision depends on whether they receive badly needed rainfall within the next 30 days or so.

Even if significant rainfall were to occur, it would be too late to generate new growth this fall in the northern areas of the United States. But, it could save the winter wheat pastures in the southern Plains.

In some regions, grass stands have been so severely damaged due to lack of rain and heavy pasturing that they may require new seeding next spring. Without rain soon, the already-weakened pasture grasses also may not be able to survive the winter, the sources said. And, if that should occur, ranchers and farmers face a longer period next spring before the newly seeded grass would be ready to be pastured.

Where corn is produced, cattlemen can turn their cattle into the fields after the crop has been harvested, and the cows can forage on the stalks and any grain left behind. Some cattle producers in Nebraska said they plan to harvest corn and begin moving their cows into those fields in the next two to three weeks.

One long-time ranch family in southwestern Nebraska said conditions there are the worst they have been in 100 years. Kenneth and Phyllis Gardner, whose ranch has been in Kenneth's family for 113 years, like others face the difficult decision of selling their herd. The Gardners own about 300 Angus cows.

Phyllis Gardner in a telephone interview said there was not enough rain even in the spring and early summer months to green the pastures. She added that a 92-year-old neighbor said conditions this year were the worst he had seen in his lifetime--surpassing those of the Dust Bowl years.

Some cattle owners in southwestern Nebraska have shipped their cows to the Sand Hills area of the state, about 300 miles away, where sufficient rain has fallen and grass is available for pasturing. But, there is the added cost of transporting the cattle and for leasing the land.

Sources in Montana report many cattlemen there have weaned calves 30 to 45 days ahead of schedule, and liquidation of more cows and bred heifers was likely. Producers in the region are well ahead of schedule on contracted arrangements for calves, and the yearlings are mostly gone already, sources there said. With rangeland scorched by the drought and feed supplies running low, many ranchers there are in need of additional hay.

"We can buy hay if necessary, but if we don't have water, what else can we do but sell the cattle--or move them," one Texas rancher said, where no rainfall has been recorded in the past 75 days. In addition to no rain, Texas has endured record heat. Recent rain in the Dallas-Fort Worth area provided some relief, but the rainfall was spotty and some areas received none.

Even in many of the areas where rain did fall, the amounts were not sufficient to replenish dried up ponds and stock tanks, sources said.

Allen Spelce, spokesman with the Texas Department of Agriculture, in an interview this week, said the lack of rain and heat this year has been particularly hard on ranchers because last year was dry as well. Conditions at the beginning of the year were already very poor. Rainfall in some areas of the state in 1999 was only 50% of normal, adding to the problem this year.

Spelce said the agriculture department has projected drought-related losses for 1996 through the end of this year at nearly $5 billion. He added that livestock markets in the state report 50 to 75% increases in the number of cows and calves being sold. The state's Hay Hotline network now includes pastureland available for leasing.

Southern Alberta also is experiencing drought-like conditions, and farmers are selling cattle early if they need to or bringing in extra feed supplies. Some also are not harvesting their fields, instead finding it more lucrative to use the fields to feed the cattle than to harvest.

Areas of western Saskatchewan also are experiencing very dry conditions. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is reportedly looking into a tax deferral designation program. The program would allow farmers who sell part of their breeding herd due to drought conditions in certain regions to defer a portion of sale proceeds to the following year.

The department has not confirmed all of the regions that will qualify. To defer income, farmers must have reduced their breeding herd by at least 15%. When the herd has been reduced by 30% or more, 90% of income from net sales can be deferred.

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