Story published: July 27, 2021
After nearly 50 years of farming, Richard Moen surveyed some of his 640 acres of pasture land in Clearbrook, Minn. Dozens of cattle used to roam, foraging for grass. But not anymore. About two-thirds of his herd got sent to auction earlier this month.
"It's an end of an era for me, I suspect," said Moen, 81.
Minnesota has been experiencing one of the most severe droughts in recent memory. In fact, many farmers statewide have been caught between being able to feed their cattle and sending them prematurely to market. The exceedingly dry temperatures for a prolonged period of time have scorched grass and left only tufts where two-feet high grasses would have been.
"This should be bright green and about this high," Moen explained, motioning to a span of about two feet. "Unless something really changes, I anticipate an onslaught of cows going to market this year," he said.
The dry temperatures have also decimated available hay for feed. The phone for fourth-generation farmer Aaron Chervestad is ringing non-stop. But he doesn't have good news for people. His 4,000-bale hay crop has been cut in half.
"It's all spoken for. I could have sold it twice," he said, referring to the 2,000 hay bales stocked in his barn.
This year's drought is a reverse of last summer's torrential rains. In 2020, many farmers lost a percentage of their crops due to flooding. This year, farmers in Pennington County say there's been only seven inches of rainfall over the past 11 months. That has made hay a scarcity, and the market price has doubled to $100 a bale. Even if farmers could find available hay to buy, Chervestad said the prices are forcing many to surrender their herds and leave the business entirely.
"Normally your local auction barns, they close the sales down in June, in July," he said. "Now they're having sales very week and they are big sales - 700 to 1,500 head a week or more coming in, from what I understand," he said.
What this means for the consumer may be skyrocketing beef prices, but not right away. With more cattle being sold, beef prices may stay stable for a year. But after that, with depleted herds in the region, there won't be enough supply to meet regular demand.
"A year-and-a-half year down the road, there will be a shortage of beef, and it will drive up prices because there will be less beef available," said Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmer's Union.
He says farmers are asking for some sort of disaster relief from the federal government. So far, the response has been slow. The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to open up some conservation lands for grazing by August, but many farmers say the damage has already been done.
"Farmers just need a chance, there's crop insurance for crops but really nothing for forage land," Wertish said.
For Moen, he plans to retire and spend some time in Mexico. His son and daughter both have left the area and are not interested in inheriting the family farm. Moen says his acreage will probably be rented or sold, and there's a chance it will pass from forage land into crop fields. And that will be one less livestock farmer putting in the intensive round-the-clock labor to supply beef consumers.
"It would be nice to go out on your own rather than to be forced into it," he said.