Pastures are drying up, hay and feed are running low and it's proving too much for more and more South Dakota ranchers. The persistent hot, dry conditions are igniting early cattle sales at the Mitchell Livestock Auction.
The number of ranchers selling their cattle early is up more than 30 percent in the last three weeks, corresponding with the worsening drought. And as ranchers sell, they are getting significantly less than they would last month.
Mitchell Livestock Auction co-owner Marion Rus said grass is short and feed is becoming too expensive, creating conditions producers haven't seen since the 1980s.
"They hate to sell. They keep the best part of their cattle, the better end of their cattle," Rus said. "They'll sell off the poor-doing cattle and the cattle they do not need and save their feed for younger stock."
On a typical day in July, about 1,000 cattle come through these gates. Now, the sale barn is averaging 2,300.
KELOLAND News spoke with many sellers Wednesday who did not want to go on camera. One man said he sold over 700 head of cattle. Another man admits he has to sell while he still can.
And while there are buyers taking home the cattle, the market is as dry as the fields. Rus said ranchers are losing around $100 per head of slaughter cattle compared to the end of June.
"If it doesn't rain in this area, they will keep moving (the cattle). It will continue probably until fall if we don't get any rain," Rus said.
The latest US Drought Monitor shows 77 percent of South Dakota is in a moderate to severe drought, and the rest of the state is abnormally dry.