DAHLEN, N.D. – Grass crunched under Jeff Trenda’s boots as he walked across a parched pasture, where a herd of about 20 Angus-Simmental crossbred cows gathered under a tree as the temperature neared 90 degrees.
The combination of too much heat and too little rain dried up the pasture grass that usually would be green and lush in early summer. On this day, it's brown and sparse.
Trenda’s situation echoes across North Dakota's farms and ranches. North Dakota pasture and range conditions for the week ending Sunday, June 27, were rated 33% very poor, 32% poor, 27% fair and 8% good, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service-North Dakota. Stock water supplies were rated 38% very short, 36% short and 26% percent adequate. No pasture or rangeland in North Dakota was rated excellent and there was no surplus of water in the state, the statistics service said.
In late June, Trenda already was resigned to the fact that this year's summer grazing season would be greatly shortened.
“If we get to the first of August, we’ll be lucky,” Trenda said. Most years, he would leave the cows in the pasture until mid-October.
Because pasture conditions are poor late last month, half of his herd of 120 cow-calf pairs were still in a corral, where he was feeding them hay and silage.
“We’re trying to hold them in the yard to let the grass get a little longer,” Trenda said. He’s grateful that last winter was mild so he didn’t use all of the hay he baled in 2020.
This year’s hay crop is likely to be scanty, and Trenda figures he’ll get less than a third of the bales he usually does. He is hoping Conservation Reserve Program acres will be opened early for haying. If farmers and ranchers aren’t allowed to cut and bale CRP land until August, the quality of the grass, which generally isn’t good, will be even poorer, Trenda said.
“It’s going to be better than nothing, but it would be a lot better if we could get it earlier, quality-wise," he said.
Trenda plans to sell 10 older cows in the next couple of weeks to ease pressure on his feed supply. It’s likely he’ll also have to sell some heifers that he wanted to keep and use as breeding stock.
The drought, besides damaging pastures, has resulted in dry or nearly dry water holes, like the one in his pasture east of Dahlen.
“There was water there a week ago when I put the cows in it, but now there’s nothing” Trenda said. The water hole not only was empty, but the top of the ground had cracked into brittle pieces, and the sides of the hole showed no signs of moisture.
Other pasture water holes have a small pool of water but it’s poor quality, and Trenda is concerned his cattle will get sick if they drink from them. He's hauling water to his herd to ensure they have access to good water. For the past few weeks, Trenda has been filling a 3,000-gallon water trailer, pulling it to the pastures, and then pumping the water into troughs.
Two years ago, Trenda and his neighbors were struggling to cut corn silage because the fields were knee-deep in mud. That year, 2019, farmers banded together and modified manure spreaders and used them to haul their silage through the field.
“It’s a battle. Every day is a battle. You just don’t know what’ s going to happen,” he said.