Making ‘life-or-death decisions’: Doing what is needed to keep the cattle herd fed

KELOLAND.com Original

BLUNT, S.D. (KELO)– Central South Dakota farmers and ranchers are feeling the effects of the drought on all aspects of their operations. 

Raleigh Leesman, a producer from Blunt has a diverse operation, spreading across approximately 40 miles of land. He has cattle, multiple crops and pastureland. In his area, they are no stranger to Mother Nature’s difficulties. 

“You know, out of 35 years, I think I’ve probably had two good years where everything looked good,” Leesman said. “This year, it’s pretty much a train wreck from one end to the other.”

Leesman said they will harvest no spring crop this year. 

He tries to preserve all the moisture they get, “which this year is nothing”, Leesman said. By having a diverse operation, they hope that something will be successful each year, but this year it is looking like “a widespread failure.”

This year, Leesman said they have gotten about 70 hundreds of rain this growing season. 

When asked how this rainfall compares to a normal growing season, he said “Well where I live, I am not sure what normal is. We take what we can, we take the good with the bad.” 

The area really didn’t see a spring season, Leesman said. 

“We froze, or nearly froze, and three days later it was, you know, 97 degrees,” he said. 

The major issue is that they do not have much sub moisture, Leesman said. They haven’t seen significant moisture since August. 

Heat also plays a big role in the drought stress. 

Leesman has concerns with the accuracy of the drought monitor because it does not account for the heat stress. 

“Many people use [the drought monitor] as a tool to determine what happens out here, even though they don’t come out here,” he said. “I’ve never seen heat like this this early.” 

Pastureland in the area has been heavily affected by the hot, dry conditions. 

Like some other producers in the central part of the state, Leesman decided to bale his winter wheat for hay rather than harvest it this year, so that he would have feed for his livestock.

“That was another life-or-death decision, it’s just what I needed” Leesman said. “We were looking at it and looking at the pastures and I said, ‘we got our tail in a crack, we are going to have to sell cows’ and then I started looking and I said, ‘well we don’t have to sell cows’; we started looking at the wheat and it was not going to fill.” 

Leesman says they will survive with that, and that is their plan. He does not want to fire sell his cattle. 

This is the field health of one of Leesman’s alfalfa fields south of blunt which has not been hayed this year.

“I have never seen anybody fire sale their cows, have to go to the sale barn, come out well,” he said. 

He said he has had maybe 100 calls from people asking to buy hay from him. But keeping his hay crop is going to be what it takes from him to hold onto his own herd. 

Raising cattle during a drought is a lot of work, Leesman said. 

“We’d rather not do it, we rent on pastures that we can’t use and there really isn’t very good insurance for grass,” he said. “It’s just something that you try to get by.”

They will creep feed their calves early and put bale feeders out for them to feed the wheat that they baled, Leesman said. 

“[The cows] aren’t happy, we’re not happy and basically we are just waiting for next year,” he said. 

One area that the Leesman’s are blessed is that they are able to water their cattle with Mid-Dakota water, he said. 

“Without it, I think we would probably be gone,” he said. 

A lot of people who don’t have that water source, are having to fence off stock dams. 

From the crop side of things, the corn is taking the drought the hardest right now, Leesman said. But, if it gets rooted down, it will probably survive for a while. 

The soybeans are a little more resilient and may be able to hold out for an August rain, he said.

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