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Drought conditions across the West are forcing ranchers to make tough decisions about their animals and operations.

SALEM — The unprecedented drought across the West is taxing ranchers with tight feed and forage supplies and forcing them to make tough decisions about their animals and operations.

Niels Hansen, president of the Public Lands Council and a Rawlings, Wyoming, rancher, said he has heard mixed reports from ranchers in his region about the drought’s impact.

“Some people are getting some rain and doing pretty good and holding on, and a lot of people are hurting really bad,” he said during a webinar hosted by Farm Journal.

“We’ve seen people making major adjustments as far back as April to changing their plans, maybe moving stock off the ranch,” he said.

A friend of his was feeding hay to his cows clear into June, waiting for his high country to improve so he could turn them out on the range, he said.

“We get reports similar to that all over, and I’m sure everybody is in the same boat that we’re all sitting here now and looking toward the future and trying to get down what these feed costs are going to be for the winter so that we can make plans in that direction,” he said. “We’re all struggling and just trying to work our way through.”

Others on the webinar reported similar situations.

“It’s a dire situation,” said Larry Schnell, partner and general manager of Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange in Dickinson, North Dakota.

“The older ranchers are telling us that this is as bad as they’ve seen it,” he said.

The last decent rains in the region were in September 2019, and that got ranchers through 2020 with close to half their usual hay crop.

But it’s a different story this year.

“A lot of people aren’t even cutting it. But if they’re cutting it at all, they’re talking about one bale per acre — some of them less than that. They’re talking about acres per bale,” he said.

As for other feed, there’s more corn in the area than there used to be, but the nitrates are very high. The same is true for wheat and other grains, he said.

“So it’s a very dire situation,” he said.

It’s a similar situation in Eastern Oregon — maybe a little behind North Dakota, said Jason Johnson, who manages Producers Livestock Marketing and runs a backgrounding operation in Vale.

“We’ve been able to generate some crops this year, but we’re going to be running on empty here real shortly,” he said.

Producers in the area will probably be able to get through this year, but they will be in a tough situation next year if they don’t get some significant rainfall and a good winter, Johnson said.

A lot of smaller operators, with jobs in town, are getting out due to the cost of feed and total lack of outside forage.

Some ranchers are feeding hay right now, and that’s a big problem, he added. So much expense is going into calves that it’s not going to be economical for long, or it’s not already.

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