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Cattle numbers down in Wadena area

Cattle from the Barthel ranch enjoy a beautiful February day Tuesday near Perham. Mitch Barthel is one of the area ranchers coping with the effects of drought on overhead costs. Submitted photo

Last summer's drought made headlines around the state. What people may not realize, however, is that as farms struggle to deal with lack of water, cattle ranches have been drying up right alongside them.

Industry insiders say that because the Wadena area has poorer soil compared to other areas, a large portion of Minnesotan cattle ranching takes place in our area. When drought comes, ranchers in places like Verndale, Staples and Bluffton feel it.

Wadena and the surrounding area is right on the border of one of the regions that Joe Martin, executive director of the Minnesota Cattlemen's Association, worries about the most as ranchers deal with lack of rain.

"When drought comes, we're sort of the first on the line to be impacted because the pastures dry up and there's nothing left for the cattle to eat," Martin said.

Martin added that relative to other parts of the country, Minnesota has escaped the worst of the drought. However, in many cases, the hay grown here was exported to states that needed it more, leaving Minnesotan ranchers at square one.

Miles Kuschel, who owns a ranch near Nimrod, said higher overhead prices are also causing ranchers to sell off their herds, and his own ranch is no exception.

"Since 2008, we've had to reduce herd size by at least 25 percent," Kuschel said.

Rancher Mitch Barthel lives in New York Mills, and has a sale yard in Perham as well as pastureland near Bluffton. He explained why he thought ranchers were willing to give up on cattle farming.

"Who wants to have a cow? You've got to care for a cow 365 days a year," Barthel said. "When you corn farm ... you work hard too, but it ain't every day, like a cow."

Adding to the difficulties area cattle ranchers said they face with the drought is a relative lack of insurance and government subsidies available to them compared to crop farmers.

"There really isn't any strong insurance products ... for cattle producers," Martin said. "There is a disaster program that's authorized in the old farm bill, the one we're operating under now, but there is no funding for it. So the program's there, but Congress hasn't provided any money for producers who experience disaster, drought."

Barthel said the lack of help means less room for error on the part of ranchers.

"There ain't no insurance or subsides for cattle farmers," Barthel said. "When you lose, you lose."

Barthel said it will be an extremely difficult year if the drought continues.

"If we would have a dry year this year, it would be devastating," Barthel said.

Martin had a similarly dire scenario in mind if the drought remains, but was still optimistic about the future of the cattle industry as a whole.

"Producers are really going to be faced with a choice, if we see the drought continue," Martin said. "It's either take the gains and sell your cows and lightweight calves, or bet on even stronger prices in the future, which I think are going to be there ..."

Although Martin said the high price of beef is beneficial to ranchers, he told of an upcoming jump in price for consumers at the supermarket.

"The numbers I've seen of estimates is they expect consumer prices to be up this year about 4 percent, and beef to average about $4.85 a pound," he said.