North Dakota Stockmen’s Association (NDSA) Executive Vice President Julie Ellingson testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power this afternoon. As a fourth-generation beef producer, Ellingson shared with committee members her perspective on the impact of drought on North Dakota cattle ranchers and the importance of livestock grazing as a land management tool.
Amid one of the most severe droughts in the nation’s history, the hearing addressed the current status and management of federal drought-related resources in the western United States. More than 90 percent of the western United States is currently experiencing some degree of drought, and North Dakota is no exception. Currently, 99.8 percent of the state has a drought designation, and the state has set records for the earliest onset of D4 conditions and the highest drought severity and coverage index in history.
Ellingson explained the impact and long-term consequences that drought has on ranchers, whose work is critical in food production and achieving environmental stewardship goals.
“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.
She spoke to the tough decisions many cattle producers have had to make – reducing their herd size, sending cattle away to be fed or sourcing feed from long distances. She noted a 24 percent increase in sales at auction markets where the NDSA maintains brand inspection this year. As of July 2021, North Dakota ranchers have sold 148,000 cows. The average for an entire year is 200,000.
Ellingson touted the critical role that grazing plays in natural resource management and wildfire prevention and stressed the importance of continued federal support for grazing, which plays an important role in forage production, wildlife food and habitat and the storage of carbon. “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.
She expressed gratitude for assistance provided to livestock producers in response to the emergency conditions, noting particularly the importance of recent enhancements to the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program that will help offset the cost of the transportation of feed in drought situations. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the changes following a drought tour and roundtable discussions hosted by Sen. John Hoeven in the state this summer.
Ellingson concluded her testimony before the committee, stressing, “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.”