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Rugby Livestock Auction sees flood of cattle from drought-stricken territory

By Sue Sitter - | Jul 3, 2021

Auctioneer Mike Ostrem opens bidding on a cow-calf pair at the Rugby Livestock Auction June 28. Sue Sitter/PCT

Trailer after trailer of cattle unloaded for sale day at the Rugby Livestock Auction June 28 as buyers and sellers sat down in the barn to negotiate prices on cow-calf pairs.

“This shouldn’t be happening this time of year,” one local rancher said.

Auctioneer Mike Ostrem introduced a group of young cattle to the crowd.

“This next group comes from the disbursal of an entire herd,” Ostrem said. “The owner just plumb ran out of grass.”

The scene replayed itself all afternoon. Other classes of cattle had come in during the morning, keeping the auction staff busy with sale documents and phone calls.

Barton resident Lisa Marshall sat in the sale barn, her face showing both shock and defeat. She watched her budding business, a small herd of cattle, move into the sale area and go up for bid.

“Are you doing a story on how much the drought sucks?” she asked. “Because it does.”

Marshall, an Air Force veteran, grew up near Rugby and graduated from Rugby High School. “When I retired, I was looking for something to do,” Marshall said. “My brother had cattle and said, ‘Buy some cattle. You can get into this.’ So, I did.”

Marshall said things went well for her at first. She enjoyed ranching and bonded with her small herd.

“I had gotten close to them. I’d see them (in the pasture), I’d scratch their heads once in awhile. Now, they’re all gone,” Marshall said. “There was just nothing to feed them.”

“Normally, you’d see people out haying around here,” she added. Now, there’s just nothing.”

Marshall said she might start over in the cattle business if conditions change. “I’ll wait and see what happens,” she said. “I might get back into this.”

Marshall said she was thankful for the support her brother gave her emotionally. “He’s great,” she said.

A man who represented a group of cattle sellers from Surrey said, “Things are a little better here than they are out our way. It’s terrible with the drought out where we are.”

The seller, who asked not to be named, said of his group, “We’re each keeping five pairs. The rest we’re selling.”

The group of sellers had found little help from government programs. “They had one program, where I think we got $50 or $60 a head, but otherwise, nothing,” he added, laughing ruefully.

“Last year the Farmer’s Almanac said the weather was going to be like this,” he said.

In the sales office, Brenda Heilman and Helga Thiel helped auction owners Cliff and Alicia Mattson manage the steady stream of paperwork coming in.

“We don’t have the numbers in front of us, but I know we’ve sold more pairs in the last month than we’ve sold in the past six years,” Heilman, a former owner of the auction, said.

Heilman said of the sellers coming in, “It’s all from drought territory. It’s from Rugby west. The far northwest part of the state isn’t as bad as us, but it follows the pattern you see on the drought map.”

A swath of land from southwestern through north central North Dakota has experienced exceptional drought this year after a dry winter and spring.

Heilman, whose family ranches in Pierce County, said June wouldn’t normally be a busy time for the sale barn.

“Generally, people are putting up hay on their ranches,” Heilman said. “We have some alfalfa we put up, and that wasn’t terrible, but we rely on two to three cuttings of that so if it doesn’t rain, we’ll only have a third of what we should’ve had right there. And the grass needs rain.”

Nearly one inch of rain fell in Pierce County between June 25 and 27, providing moisture that Heilman and Thiel said would help a little.

“(The rain) will help that alfalfa grow, but it doesn’t make much difference in the grass,” Heilman explained.

“It just puts a little optimism in your heart,” Thiel said.

“It’ll regrow pastures,” Heilman said. “We can put cows out to graze them.”

Thiel, also a former auction owner, said she had been involved in the business for 38 years. “I’ve never seen anything like this in all those 38 years,” Thiel said of the drought. “It was bad in ’88 but we got water from snow the winter before. This was worse. We had no snow last winter.”

Thiel and Heilman said they had heard news reports describing 2021 “as the third worst year in history for moisture” in North Dakota.

Heilman said, “It’s hard to compare (drought years),” adding snowfall makes a difference in dry springs and summers.

“The snowfall’s what fills up the water holes and all the places cattle can drink,” Thiel said.

“I think the ranchers have put up with crises for many years, but they’ve never seen anything like this,” Thiel added. “This is devastating.”

A statement on the Rugby Livestock Auction’s website says the auction is in the process of pooling resources for ranchers facing the devastating effects of drought.

Beneath the list of resources is a simple statement: “Pray for rain.”

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