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Ranchers OK with winter because of good hay supply, better cattle prices

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region Park Rapids, 56470
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Area ranchers say they're in good shape in what threatens to be a long, cold winter, at least in parts of the region.

"So far, so good," said Dale Lueck, an Aitkin, Minn., producer and spokesman for the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association.

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"Our feed supply shouldn't be an issue, and in this part of the country, we're accustomed to the cold," he said.

Even so, some experts predict the Northern Plains will face an unusually cold, wet winter, followed by a late spring.

Winter started early in much of the region, with late November and early December cold and stormy. Statistics from the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network for the first two weeks of December help to make the point:

The average temperature in Sidney, Mont., was 5 degrees below normal.

The average temperature in Jamestown, N.D., was 9 degrees below normal.

The average temperature in Greenbush, Minn., was 7 degrees below normal.

In contrast, the average temperature in Britton, S.D., for the past 14 days of the month was normal.

Parts of South Dakota have been hit with winter storms, but much of the state has enjoyed excellent weather, said Bill Slovek, a Philip, S.D., cow-calf operator.

"We've just had a wonderful fall," said Slovek, first vice president of the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association.

As of mid-December, his cattle still were grazing in fall pastures, with favorable weather forecast for the rest of the month, he said.

He has plenty of hay for his cattle.

"I never put up so much hay as I did this year," he said.

Prices are good, too. He sold some calves this fall for $20 per hundredweight more than a year earlier, and prices have risen higher since then.

Ranchers in his area struggled with low prices in 2008 and 2009 and with drought for five years before that, Slovek said

Now, "all the conditions (for success) have really come together," he said.

'Extra work, but that's OK'

In North Dakota, ranchers are talking about the tough start to winter but aren't unduly concerned, said Jason Schmidt, a Medina, N.D., rancher and president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association.

"There's some extra work -- moving snow, feeding a little more hay, bedding a little better -- but that's OK," he said.

Ranchers put their livestock first and do the additional work willingly, he said.

Improving prices make ranching more enjoyable and profitable, while plentiful hay supplies provide insurance against a cold, long winter, he said.

Kim Baker, a Hot Springs, Mont., rancher and president of the Montana Cattlemen's Association, said early snow forced her to begin feeding hay to her cattle several weeks earlier than usual this year.

But she and other ranchers across the state have good hay supplies, she said.

She said she's hopeful for a "normal Montana winter," not one that's unusually cold, wet and long.

"It's still early," she said.

Cattle are a key part of the Upper Midwest economy.

For instance, in 2009 South Dakota had the nation's sixth-largest calf crop, with Montana ranked seventh and North Dakota 15th. That same year, South Dakota was seventh in the number of cattle and calves on feed, with Minnesota ranked ninth.

Cattle are more common than people in most of the region, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Nearly 1.7 million calves were born in 2009 in South Dakota, which has about 810,000 residents.

Nearly 1.5 million calves were born in 2009 in Montana, which has about 975.000 residents.

About 890,000 calves were born in 2009 in North Dakota, which has about 650,000 people.

Most of the calves born in South Dakota, Montana and North Dakota came from beef cows.

In Minnesota, about 820,000 calves, the majority from milk cows, were born in 2009. The state has about 5.3 million people.

Agweek and the Park Rapids Enterprise are owned by Forum Communications Co.

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