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Bone dry ground causes hardships for cattle producer and his herd

Wayne Devore's career path is becoming extinct. If he eventually has that going-out-of-business sale, no one will have to use a cattle prod on him. He'll probably just mosey on down the road with his cows.

Devore is a cattle rancher in the heart of resort country. And three out of four tough years is taking a toll on his livelihood.

His 175 head of cattle are scattered among three pastures. Even so, his pastureland is down to the nubbins and he began buying hay two weeks ago.

"This field won't even support 30 head," he said, surveying an 80-acre tract east of Park Rapids.

"When the grass does well, it'll feed the herd through October, sometimes through snowfall," he said.

But not this year. Since three of the last four years have been too dry, Devore is culling his herd.

"We're downsizing because of the expense of keeping them fed," he said. "We'll be selling more going into the winter starting with the oldest cows."

Devore normally sells his younger cows to feedlots, but that's been a tough go, too.

Feedlots, faced with skyrocketing corn costs, have reduced the price they're willing to pay to fatten up young cattle. Their profits were going up in smoke and they, too, needed to cut costs.

"The price of feeder calves is down 40 cents a pound from what they were a year ago and 50 cents a pound from what they were two years ago," Devore said.

His pile of hay bales is one-quarter a normal yield. And trucking in hay this early in the season wipes out his profit margin.

"We can get it delivered, good quality beef cattle hay for $105 a ton," he said. "But it's scarce and it has to be trucked in from Mahnomen, Waubun and Thief River Falls."

He'll feed his herd two tons a day. That will cost him more than $6,000 a month. "Plus I'm chopping some green corn but the corn is very drought-stressed and turning brown," he said of the supplemental feed. "It's not going to have much for ears."

His gaze rests on a lush green crop of potatoes one field away.

"Irrigated crops always do well but the dry land ones..." he says, his voice trailing off at the obvious comparison.

"One thing, our land doesn't store any water," he said. "It's too coarse, too much sand in it. And then we don't have the clay underneath so we can get three inches of rain and 10 days later it'll be dry as a bone in the hot summertime."

And ample spring snows didn't adequately replenish substandard water tables. "That's long gone," he said of the spring snowfall. It's gonna take a lot of rain to get this grass back up."

His 80-acre tract has its own lake, but he's unable to run an irrigation pipe from it to his pastureland because it would be cost prohibitive, and the land is considered a federal wetland that he can't drain.

The drought conditions have even taken a toll on the lake. It's down 5 feet. He points to an area of thistle and other weeds.

"That's where I used to bass fish," he said. It's now dry land - very dry.

Recently Devore had 110 birthing cows. This spring he was down to 85. He simply couldn't afford for his herd to bring that many cows into the world.

He's stoic about the hardships his career path has endured, but he's also realistic about the future.

"We borrow money to feed but generally you sell enough so you can keep the rest." He said. "So we sell accordingly. In better times we can keep more (cows.) If we had a good year with plenty of rain and a second cutting we could afford to keep more cattle. Here we barely have a first cutting."

His children are grown and have no interest in taking over his sole proprietorship as cattle producers.

"You raise cattle because you enjoy it," he said. "These last few years there really isn't any money in it."

His 80-acre tract does have value, however. The lake is home to trumpeter swans, ducks, geese, loons and other wildlife. It would be a developer's dream.

"The land is just too valuable to run cattle," he admitted. "The cattle industry is in a big change. When I quit there won't be any more cattle here. Cattle in this area... there's not many herds left."