North Dakota’s cattle ranchers have had to make difficult decisions this year, North Dakota Stockmen’s Association Vice President Julie Ellingson told lawmakers this week on Capitol Hill.
Ellingson testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power about the impact of drought on North Dakota’s cattle ranchers and the importance of livestock grazing as a land management tool. The subcommittee is examining the current status and management of federal drought-related resources in the Western United States. More than 90 percent of the West is experiencing some degree of drought. North Dakota, meanwhile, is experiencing one if its worst droughts in history, with 99.8 percent of the state under a drought designation. The state has set records for earliest onset of exceptional drought conditions, and the highest drought sev verity and coverage index in history.
Many cattle ranchers have been forced to sell off herds, Ellingson said, noting a 24-percent increase in sales at auction markets where the NDSA maintains brand inspection this year. As of July 2021, North Dakota’s ranchers had sold 148,000 cows, which works out to a yearly average of 200,000.
“The impacts of drought are complex. There are the immediate effects – lack of water for irrigation, lack of spring rainfall during crucial growing seasons for grasses and crops and lower water tables … There are the medium-term effects – increased risk of fire, changes to the watersheds downstream and compounded effects on business operations and natural resource planning. Then, there are the long-term effects – change in local economic stability due to the inability to adjust to drought conditions, loss of natural resource elements due to direct and indirect impacts of drought and more,” Ellingson said.
Grazing plays a critical role in natural resource management and wildfire prevention, Ellingson said, and continued federal support for grazing, which plays a critical role in forage production, wildlife food and habitat, and the storage of carbon, is vital.
“As this committee, this Congress and the Administration look for ways to make landscapes more resilient and to increase conservation, using grazing to manage grasslands and optimize their potential will be key,” she stressed.
Ellingson also thanked lawmakers for the assistance that has been provided to livestock producers in response to the emergency conditions, particularly noting the recent enhancements to the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program, which helps offset the cost of transporting feed in drought situations. That change was announced following a drought tour and roundtable discussion hosted by Sen. John Hoeven in North Dakota this summer.
“As a rancher, I know that landscapes carefully managed through livestock grazing are more resilient. Healthy ecosystems must be created, nurtured and maintained, and it takes coordination from all parties. Healthy landscapes take investment from each of us, and ranchers are doing their part.”
Hoeven said the year has been particularly challenging for North Dakota’s producers, amid grassland fires, unpredictable markets, and severe drought.
“Our farmers and ranchers produce the highest quality, lowest cost food supply in the world, and good farm and ranch policy benefits every American, every day,” he said. “With that in mind, as the Committee considers policies to address drought and increase landscape resilience, we need to ensure that producers are at the forefront of our efforts.”
The Senator has been pushing for more flexibility for grazing public lands during drought, as well as support for programs like Eastern North Dakota Alternate Water Supply Project, to help ensure reliable and secure water supply for agriculture and other water users.
Congress approved $10 billion in disaster assistance funding, with $750 million specifically for livestock producers, to assist producers with losses due to drought and other natural disasters. Lawmakers also approved additional flexibilities for the Risk Management Agency to ensure quick and fair adjustments and payments to producers and more flexibility for utilization of cover crops as forage.