‘We’re fighting a hard battle’: Cattle producers combating drought, price increases and meatpacking issues

KELOLAND.com Original

EUREKA, S.D. (KELO) — Tom Schnabel hopped out of his tractor Tuesday afternoon and didn’t mince words when explaining the hardships many cattle producers in South Dakota are facing. 

Standing next to one of his dry pastures about 12 miles east of Eureka in the north-central part of the state, Schnabel listed off the major issues him and other cattle producers are facing in 2021: very little moisture over the past six months, triple digit hot temperatures in June causing a lack of feed for cattle, price increases for fuel, tires, trucks, and facing a few large meatpacking companies’ stronghold on beef prices.  

Tom Schnabel, a cattle producer in north-central South Dakota.

“We’re fighting a hard battle trying to get a fair price on this meat and this cattle,” Schnabel said. “I realize back in the 70s, you didn’t get much for the fat cattle, but the expenses aren’t what they are now.” 

Like all farmers and livestock producers, Schnabel said many are finding ways to adapt to the poor conditions but that also creates problems down the line. Different grains and other supplements are being used by a lot of producers to help “stretch the grasses some” but keeping a high standard for future breeding becomes another concern. 

“I don’t ever remember it being this hot, this early, for this long period of time,” Schnabel said. “We don’t even get cool enough at night to make some dew on the grass to moisten anything.” 

And the drought conditions aren’t just impacting cattle producers in one part of South Dakota. The latest drought monitor lists 20% of South Dakota in “extreme drought” and 49% in “severe drought.” Areas of North Dakota are experiencing “exceptional drought” and most of Wyoming, Montana, Minnesota and half of Iowa are dealing with some type of drought conditions. 

“That’s the scary thing. A lot of times when we see a drought, you see a third of the state or half of the state. This is multiple states,” Schnabel said. 

“That’s the scary thing. A lot of times when we see a drought, you see a third of the state or half of the state. This is multiple states,” Tom Schnabel said

After a major drought year in 2012, there were record beef prices that followed in 2013 and 2014, Schnabel noted.  

“And why? Because the cattle numbers declined,” Schnabel said. “The cow inventory numbers were depleted and were gone.” 

Citing how the American farmer has been called the “backbone of America” Schnabel explained how farmers support “multiple businesses off of one business.”

While this year’s drought impact might not be felt by the everyday consumer right now, Schnabel noted it’s only a matter of time. 

“The grocery store is going to start having to mark that price up,” Schnabel said. “We’re going to see higher priced beef that’s going to come to the counter just simply because there’s not a supply of cattle in the feedlots to have the pounds of meat we need to feed the U.S.”  

‘It’s going to trickle down to you’

Almost 20 miles west of Schnabel’s farm, Karen Mutschler, who has dealt with all of the same challenges as Schnabel, is looking at some fresh green grass popping up from black ground that still smells like fresh burnt ash. 

On the left, volunteer firefighter soak a hay field fire from the end of June.
On the right, some grass starts to return three weeks after the fire.

At the end of June, Mutschler struck a “fist-sized rock that was flush with the ground” while she was cutting hay. She said she was nervous about cutting her hay field, which last year produced 700 bales of hail compared to only 140 this year. 

“It’s been really, really dry,” said Mutschler, who noted there were wind speeds of 6 mph with gusts of 16 mph when the fire started. “As dry as it is, there’s enough fuel underneath to just take off.” 

The fire burned 20 acres and spread into a nearby pasture. Two days later, despite attention from volunteer firefighters and Mutschler, the fire sparked up once again before quickly being extinguished once again. 

McPherson County farmer Karen Mutschler stands in her hay field that caught fire at the end of June.

The drought setbacks for most of McPherson County can be traced back to an October blizzard that dropped 13 inches of snow in some areas. 

“That snow melted and we basically got no moisture all winter long,” Mutschler said. 

Schnabel said this drought can be traced back to November. 

“We never really got any snow cover to really do anything to begin with,” Schnabel said. 

“The price of the hay has doubled or more from where it was a year ago. If you can find the hay, the freight to get it there, it adds so much cost that it almost doesn’t become feasible to do.” 

Mutschler said out of all her crops, the corn looks the best after recent rains. She pointed out most of it is shoulder-high and she was happy about the humidity in the air on Wednesday morning. She planted soybeans on June 1 and only the low areas came up until after the Fourth of July when some seed started to come up despite sitting dormant for more than a month. 

“Now I need to pray for a late frost or a lot more rain for those beans to come back,” Mutschler said. “I’m going to have different stages of beans come harvest.” 

She’s planning on extra expenses for feed this year, but she’s hoping to just get through the rest of summer. 

“Farmers hurt, it’s going to trickle down to you,” Mutschler said. “It hurts everybody in the long run. It does trickle down.” 

Schnabel agreed many producers are in a holding pattern, just trying to make it to the next season. With this drought though, he’s seen some more older producers call it quits and sell their entire herds. 

“It’s a hard decision to be making. This is a lifetime decision,” Schnabel said. “These cattle, you have five, 10, 12 years of genetic decisions into ‘em and work and culling processes. All of sudden you decide you have to sell them, you don’t just go out and plant a new crop next spring.” 

Schnabel said all farmers try to plan and be prepared, but “you don’t expect to get no rain.” 

He says his operation has enough carryover hay and feed to make it through this summer, but he said producers of all sizes will deal with feed quality issues. And while he remains optimistic about the upcoming months, Schnabel noted all the producers who hold on through the drought, mother nature’s next curveball looms. 

“What if we get a hard winter this year like we had back in 97 when we had feet upon feet of snow?” Schnabel said. “Some guys are nervous that they can make sure they have enough feed supply to run them cattle to get through that winter. It’s a big concern.”

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