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A mega-drought is hammering the U.S. In North Dakota, it's worse than the Dust Bowl

North Dakota ranchers have been forced to sell off close to 25% more of their herds over last year.
North Dakota ranchers have been forced to sell off close to 25% more of their herds over last year.

Joey and Scott Bailey are sitting in their kitchen trying to figure out how they'll get through these next few months.

"Just your grass hay that we would spend $30 a bale on, people are spending $150 a bale, and they're driving 250 miles to get it," Scott says.

The Baileys own a ranch on the remote prairie about 60 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border, in the heart of what locals boast is the capital of North Dakota cattle country, McHenry County. The county is also one of the most drought-plagued places in the nation, where comparisons are now being drawn to the Dust Bowl.

Ranchers here have been forced to sell off their herds at historic rates and are now worried they won't have enough feed to keep their remaining cows alive this winter. The Baileys sold 20 cows a few months back, because they couldn't afford to keep them fed. It's been so dry that they couldn't grow much of their own hay.

"We didn't have any rain last fall, and we had a super warm winter," Joey says. "When we don't get snow in North Dakota, that hurts us a lot in the spring 'cause we need the snow to make it grow right away in the spring."

Scott and Joey Bailey worry the historic drought will make it even harder for young farmers and ranchers to stay in the business.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
Scott and Joey Bailey worry the historic drought will make it even harder for young farmers and ranchers to stay in the business.

The historic drought has put a serious strain on forage, which are the plants animals graze on. So that means hay and feed are at a premium.

"You're fighting with your neighbor, your friend, the guy down the road 'cause there's only so much feed out there," Scott says. "It's extremely stressful."

Why you can't 'doomsday it'

Just like in every other bad drought cycle though — the Dust Bowl, 1988 — ranchers here are trying as much as they can to look at this crisis philosophically.

A few miles east along US Highway 2, on his family's farm outside Towner, James Green says you just have to keep going; adapt and survive.

Drought is a fact of life here, and it always comes in punishing cycles.

"Honestly, I'm gonna plan for next spring to be like a normal spring," Green says. "If you doomsday it, you're just gonna be doomsdaying the rest of your life."

Green is adapting by making hay bales out of failed crops ruined by drought. For now, he figures the plan makes more sense than that drive of 250 miles or more for expensive hay. But it also requires extensive testing for nitrates to ensure the feed isn't contaminated from fertilizers left over from farming.

As he drilled into a large bale to retrieve some samples to send to a lab, Green stood in a field of mostly brown stubble, an endless blue sky with puffy white clouds above him.

"I've never seen a June or July as hot as we had it, literally these plants would get four to five inches tall, and they'd burn off," he said.

A closer look revealed some little shoots of green grass poking through though. It did rain some here last month. "Life saving rains," locals called them. They weren't drought busters, but it was enough to make Green's 72-year-old mom, Gwen, smile.

"If we can get a month of grazing here [now] that's a godsend," she says.

The recent rains were a "god send" for Gwen Green and her son James, who say they may buy a month of grazing on their family's ranch and prevent them from downsizing their herd.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
The recent rains were a "godsend" for Gwen Green and her son James, who say they may buy a month of grazing on their family's ranch and prevent them from downsizing their herd.

It's also been a godsend having Gwen Green's sons around to keep the farm going. Her husband passed away last year. She says they're doing what they've always done, getting creative, finding that unconventional feed. She also got some grant money to buy new, more efficient watering systems, and they're exploring other mitigation measures.

But this drought also feels different.

"This is much worse than anything I've been through in 44 years out here," Gwen says. "James asked me one day, 'What would dad do?' I said, 'Dad hasn't seen anything this worse either.' "

You have to keep on doing what you're doing, they say, otherwise you'll get depressed and you won't make it.

North Dakota is an epicenter of the climate crisis

Still, the long term outlook for agriculture in North Dakota is a difficult one, according to climate scientists.

The state, infamous for its brutal winters, is already a place of extremes. State climatologist Adnan Akyuz, a professor at North Dakota State University, says the effects of climate change could be even more pronounced here compared to other states that are closer to the oceans. Along Highway 2, there is a roadside marker denoting the geographical center of North America.

North Dakota is nearly two and a half degrees warmer than it was a century ago, and the erratic swings in weather are becoming more frequent.

"I would say it is the epicenter," Akyus says. "With a 2.4 degree Fahrenheit per century rise it is one of the highest in the nation."

North Dakota is at the center of the North American continent, which climate scientists say will make it more vulnerable to extremes in a warmer world.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
North Dakota is at the center of the North American continent, which climate scientists say will make it more vulnerable to extremes in a warmer world.

Akyuz points out that just back in 2019, the state experienced its wettest year on record, only to be followed by 2021's historic drought and heat waves.

Yet, climate change doesn't come up that much in North Dakota's ag community, where producers point to the weather having always fluctuated in dramatic cycles. If you're a farmer or rancher, it may also be hard to think about coping or planning for a future of even more extremes when you're just trying to figure out how to stay in business the next few months.

The community skews older, too. The average age of a producer in North Dakota is 56.

"Ranchers and farmers are innovative in themselves, but they're not looking 20 years out because they'll be 70, they're thinking about transition planning," says Rachel Wald, an agriculture extension specialist with North Dakota State University in McHenry County.

The recent rains did lift some spirits, Wald says, even though the forecast is showing little signs of a reprieve through winter.

"If you know any rancher or farmer, staying on the optimistic side is going to help out," she says, "because having a down outlook on everything, it's hard on you after awhile."

Even if this does turn out to be just another bad drought cycle, it will take ranchers years to recover. Selling off even just a few cows is a huge deal when you've spent years — and in some cases, decades — carefully building up quality genetics in your herd.

"Just imagine if you had a job for 20 years and now you had to go to another job and your benefit package ain't as attractive, your pay scale ain't as good," says Darryl Lies, president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau.

Lies says even if ranchers last through this winter and start buying cows back, there's no guarantee they'll get the same quality they had and they may end up having to pay a lot more depending on the market.

Money is being drained from the prairie

Sale volumes have doubled at the Lake Region Livestock auction amid the historic drought.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
Sale volumes have doubled at the Lake Region Livestock auction amid the historic drought.

Ranchers have already sold off close to 25% more cattle than last year, according to figures from the North Dakota Stockmen's Association.

Drive across the state, and it's an all too familiar scene of trailers lined up outside auction barns, anxious cows mooing as they're unloaded into pens.

One auction barn in Rugby, North Dakota, reported a tenfold increase in sales this past summer. In Devil's Lake, the Lake Region Livestock barn has seen roughly double the volume at its weekly sales.

One recent morning, men clutching whips herded a drove of black Anguses into a chute, opening a huge metal door. The cattle, white tags clipped to their ears, were then funneled into a fenced pen with a sawdust floor. The auctioneer shouted out prices to a small crowd of bidders in the bleachers.

It is a short term boon for sale barns, but no one is celebrating.

In the back office, Lake View's owner, Jim Ziegler, sighs as he swats flies off a desk cluttered with paper and receipts. He worries many of his older customers won't be back next year.

Jim Ziegler, owner of Lake View Livestock in Devil's Lake, worries many of his older customers won't be back next year.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
Jim Ziegler, owner of Lake View Livestock in Devil's Lake, worries many of his older customers won't be back next year.

"The cost is just prohibitive. The guys are talking about hay costing a hundred dollars a bale," Ziegler says. "That isn't something you do if you have a large cow herd."

Ziegler opened this barn in 1988, the last truly comparable drought year. In those days, ranches tended to be smaller, he says, and people could figure a way through. Now, it just costs too much to keep a big operation going.

"People just did not get in a position where they felt comfortable going into winter," Ziegler says. "There's gonna be more and more of that. There's gonna be more decisions that have to be made here as we go through the next thirty days."

Indeed, make or break decisions, with the prospect of yet another dry winter looming.

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