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Ranches keep trucks busy

Ranches keep trucks busy

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For several y ears, the Lehfeldt family at Lavina has trained its sheep to eat leafy spurge and rented out the flocks each spring to those who must contend with the weed infestation.

It is a measure of the continuing drought that this year those weed-eaters are traveling out of state for their spring/summer pasture. The Lehfeldts’ regular Montana customers don’t have weeds, let alone grass this year.

The sheep shipped out to North Dakota Monday, joining thousands of other livestock expatriating the state as trucking companies – bull haulers – are running at capacity. Montana’s ranchers are searching for pasture everywhere. That was the option last year, but the imperative this year. A Billings dispatcher reports his clients – independent truck operators – have taken out 100 truckloads more to date than last year at this time. And fuel prices are adding to the cost.

Montana’s range is deteriorating daily in the heat and wind. Hay stocks are depleted, and prices are rising. Prospects for a normal hay crop in Montana and Wyoming this year are withering.

“We’ve never gone out of state before,” said Bob Lehfeldt, whose family has raised sheep for decades in south central Montana. “No rain, no feed. Eleven hundred sheep will go to Towner, North Dakota. They have had quite a bit of moisture there.”

Steve Nelson, who has hauled livestock out of Billings for 15 years, concurs. “It’s way busier than normal. A lot of cattle have left. And I am getting calls for grass from people I’ve hauled for.”

Nelson said he thinks the current drought is as bad as in 1988, which featured no water, 100-degree temperatures in the first two weeks of June and a historic fire season.

He noted that yearlings that would have remained on grass through this summer began moving out of state early last winter and after the first of the year.

He suggested that cattle prices, being relatively high, have created a motive for selling cattle now. “It’s a two-sided knife,” he said. “Was it the price or was the weather in the background?”

Nelson loaded out the Lehfeldts’ sheep on Monday. Today (Wednesday), his trucks are being loaded with 295 head of cows at Winnett for lack of grass.

Montana is entering its fourth dry summer and its second severe drought in a row. In central Montana especially, 100-year wells and springs have dried up. Although the range greened up in recent weeks, the forage is sparse.

According to the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service’s crop-weather report released Tuesday afternoon, the range condition for the past week was rated at very poor, 37 percent; poor, 26; fair, 25; good, 11; and excellent, 1. Last year’s conditions were similar. The five-year average was pegged at very poor, 7 percent; poor, 16; fair, 31; good, 37; and excellent, 9.

moreinfo Drought covers all of Montana

Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman on Tuesday issued a drought disaster declaration for all 56 counties in Montana.

Montana producers may contact the Montana Farm Service Agency for further information on programs available to them now that a drought disaster has been officially declared.

A wedge of extreme drought covers central Montana from the Canadian border to the Musselshell River. Most of the state is rated severe and moderate in the drought condition report released Thursday.

John Anderson has been running two trucks out of Harlowton constantly for the past year and has kept his business instate.

“But we are always going farther out,” he said, talking over the cell phone as he neared Wilsall last week. “This is the second year for drought. It is like a desert around Harlo.”

Anderson said he back hauls hay when possible. He has been able to find some in the northeastern corner near Plentywood, he said.

Hay stocks are getting on the short side in both Montana and Wyoming. The MASS reported hay on hand as of May 1 at 427,000 tons, down 58 percent from the year before. The stocks are at the lowest level since 1989, which was the spring after the 1988 drought. Truncated production last year and increased feeding brought the carryover down.

“Those Montana figures are exaggerated,” said Bill Lehfeldt. “People are still feeding. On our way back from North Dakota (across Highway 200 through the center of the state) we saw a least 10 ranches feeding. And lots of trucks from North Dakota were hauling hay west.”

Irrigated hay producers in Wyoming had a good year in 2000. Their product was in demand – so much so that the carryover this year is a mere 151,000 tons, down 79 percent from the year previous. This is the lowest level since May 1, 1955.

The scarcity of hay is measured by its price. Alfalfa hay in Wyoming sold for $64 a ton in April 2000. This April, it was at $103 a ton. Comparable figures in Montana were $65 and $94.

Curt Lund, who keeps statistics for MASS, said dryland meadows would be lucky to produce a crop of any size this year. Those who have irrigation water will probably get one cutting.

“People are shipping their cows out of state because they used their pasture last year,” Lund said.

Wayne Edwards of Billings, who keeps track of business for 10 to 25 truck owner-operators, said, “The demand for trucks is the same now as the fall run. Usually it varies, but not this year.

Adding to the cost for truckers and shippers alike is the price of fuel.

“Fuel rates are dipping into profits,” said Keith Ullery, who counts on Edwards to coordinate his loads. “Usually fuel is one-fourth of my cost, now it is a third or more.”

Diesel fuel in Montana and the Rocky Mountain region is a dime or more a gallon higher this year over last, Edwards said.

As a rule, cattle that are moved out of state for pasture usually do not return to the state both men agreed. “Some ranchers try to keep their cow herd,” Edwards said.

Edwards said he has no backlog now.

“We’re pretty current because there is no pre-scheduling like in the fall,” he said. “It is a spontaneous decision.”

Ullery of Park City said the usual request is “ ‘Can you help us out in a couple of days?’ ”

Chuck Larsen of Billings, who hauls only purebred cattle and horses, said he was running about three weeks behind on meeting requests. The work has been steady for two years.

To cover the added fuel costs, he adds “a little charge for each animal hauled,” Larsen said.

Jim Gransbery can be reached at (406) 657-1288, or by e-mail at jgransbery@billingsgazette.com

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