One consideration when drought ravages rangelands is water quality and quantity for livestock. (Journal photo by Kylene Scott.)

Drought has impacted livestock producers in much of the United States, and Extension experts from Nebraska, South Dakota, Idaho and Montana, gave their perspectives on a webinar panel discussion Nov. 11. Drought Challenges and Strategies was hosted by Ward Laboratories online.


Nebraska Extension Educator Ben Beckman said most of the state experienced a fairly dry summer, especially along the border of South Dakota. Recently some parts of the state have received some moisture, but it’s likely not a drought buster.

Forages are pretty tight, with some producers scrambling to find what they need or thinking “outside of the box” for how they’re going to feed their herd during the remainder if this year and into 2022.

“I think it's just something that we really need to sit down and put pencil to paper and look at our options,” Beckman said. “Especially with those input costs rising. Think outside the box and really see what we can do and see if there's maybe some other options that we haven't explored that might be worth looking at.”

Considering stockpile grazing or grazing crop residues, while utilizing their resources to the fullest can help stretch what forage there is available, he said.

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“Looking at those alternate feed stuffs, possibly doing some ammoniation of some different feedstuffs that are lower quality to raise that up,” he said. “Just really again, trying to think outside the box.”

Any time a producer can have a plan in place to deal with drought without being in the moment of it with all the heated emotions and clouded judgment is in a little better place in the long run, Beckman said.


Montana Associate Professor and Extension Beef Cattle Specialist Megan Van Emon said Beckman’s summary was a similar to what Montana producers were facing too.

“We are in 100% drought and have been since about July,” she said. “It's actually been a very depressing summer.”

Most of her conversations with producers have revolved around drought and how they are trying to feed their cattle. In Montana, producers are feeding a lot of straw and different alternatives like corn stalks.

“It's fairly new up here and I’ve seen a lot of corn stock bales as I've been driving around the state that most likely would never have even been considered on, let's say, an average or better moisture year,” Van Emon said.

She’s been hearing from the livestock commission there’s been close to 20,000 to 25,000 head of cattle—both cull cows and calves—that have moved out of the state in the last month. There’s just nothing to feed those cull cows. In the north central part of Montana, it’s worse for drought conditions.

“Because how do you bank roll or borrow enough money to buy $350-a-ton hay?” Van Emon said. “We have producers bringing in hay from Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, a lot of the southeastern part of the United States.”

That is more worrisome because even though it is good quality hay and will feed those cattle that need it, it brings an entire set of challenges with it like weeds and fescue toxicosis.

Van Emon and many of her colleagues have been saddened by the summer conditions, and haven’t been able to give out a lot of good news.


Idaho Assistant Professor and Range Livestock and Sheep Extension Specialist Melinda Ellison is in a unique position as she deals with both cattle and sheep, but it hasn’t been great news in her state either. Idaho has been in a drought for several years, but her producers have become more accustomed to dealing with dry conditions.

“We had pretty good moisture this past winter and we came into the spring feeling pretty good,” she said. “And then it was cold and we never got our spring moisture that we're used to getting and by June-July, we were sitting in a pretty tough position like everybody.”

In the mountainous areas, the water supply wasn’t available, so cattle couldn’t go to those areas and graze. Hauling water to some of these areas isn’t feasible because of location and terrain. Those who were able to get livestock to the ranges had to come return two to three weeks early because of forage levels and many culled their herds pretty deep because of it.

Ellison along with many producers in Idaho are worried about the upcoming year if there’s not any moisture in the coming months. Even though they’re in an extreme drought, she feels like they fared pretty well this year in general.

Idaho Extension Educator Carmen Willmore, who’s in the south-central part of the state deals with cow-calf producers who have cattle out on the range in the summer months and bring them home in the fall to graze and feed hay in the winter.

“It's our typical setup for our cow-calf producers and for the most part, people were able to go out on time but kind of like what Melinda said the grass gave up about June or July and so we had a lot of people coming home early,” she said.

Because of the drought, they also had a very short water year, running out of irrigation during the first couple weeks of June, making it difficult to have any forage crops to harvest.

“And so that put us in a pretty tough tricky situation bringing cows home,” Willmore said. “Where are you going to put them even if you wean the calves? There's nowhere to put them either. And because of all this our hay prices have gone pretty high.”

Hay prices are “just unfathomable” right now she said, and if you’re able to find it, it ranges from $250 to $300 a ton or more.

Willmore has been out to some places where the sudan grass, barley and oats were waist high in places—and those areas do have a good situation for grazing cover crops this fall and winter as those crops hold out.

Most people in her area are making plans to have a drought next year but are also pretty optimistic with the rain they’ve recently gotten.

South Dakota

South Dakota cow-calf field specialist Adele Harty is based out of Rapid City, but covers most of the state. In her area, it’s a lot like what those in Nebraska, Montana and Idaho described.

“We've definitely had some wonderful fall rains that have helped some producers in parts of the state,” she said. “We were able to get more forage crops. We've got quite a few producers in my area, which is halfway between Rapid City and Pierre that were able to put up quite a bit of millet and sudan this year. So that's helping with some of the feed resource availability.”

Another challenge is many producers are still short of forages and have been culling herds pretty heavily.

“A lot of cows have left the state. I know that some of ours have gone to Nebraska as well,” she said.

Harty suspects there’s going to be a lot of low-quality silages that will be fed to cows this year with hopes of maintaining a herd. There’s also producers who are going to utilize straw as a feed source.

Water quality is an issue in South Dakota too.

The nitrate levels were higher than a lot of labs in the area had seen before. Harty said the cause of those issues hasn’t been completely identified yet.

“But we are working with quite a few producers who had a lot of water issues,” she said. “Thankfully we do have a lot of rural water or pipeline water that's helped many of those producers get through these times to be able to move to pastures where they do have different water sources.”

For the future

Harty said to start making a plan for next year—whether its dry or not.

“Start that process now,” she said. “That way it's in your file for next year so you have that to fall back on if needed.”

Culling is certainly a practice to consider, she said, especially being cognizant of the stock’s body condition scores, ages, calves they’ve raised and other physical characteristics.

“If they have one with bad teeth, just get rid of them,” she said. “I keep telling people that because it's going to be a lot harder for them next year. If it was hard for them this year and—I know prices are low—but it's really expensive to feed them so it probably is going to be a better option to sell something now, rather than fill [the cow with bad teeth] full of $300-a-ton hay and sell it in three months.”

Ellison said on the range side of things that regardless of what’s happened at this point, it’s too late to do anything about it.

“I think it's really important to understand that even if we get absolutely dumped on and we have moisture this coming spring, those range pastures are going to need some recovery time,” she said. “Don't dump every last cow that you're used to dumping out there.”

It’s tough not putting out the same numbers to graze, but if it’s another drought year, next year those pastures need to have a break. Drought is a stressor and grazing is a stressor too.

Ellision said it needs to be less cows or less duration out on the range. Do your best to leave the grass at least 6 or 8 inches of growth.

“That's more than we usually do, but just leave it at least 6 or 8 inches or more than 50%,” she said. “Give those range pastures some time to recover. And usually with a severe drought like some of us have seen it could take two or three years to really recover.”

She suggests not adding to the herd because “we get four feet of snow this winter” and to “give those pastures that chance otherwise you're going to regret it down the road.”

“And let's be honest, even if we're not drowning next year, we probably will be again in a couple years,” Ellison said. “So I think that's just part of the management planning and making sure that you make that resource go as far as you can.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or

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