For every pound the drought stole from Tim Kiefer’s calves this summer, the rancher lost nearly $2. At 185 pounds lost per animal, it didn’t take long for the losses to add up.

“It’s really dry,” Kiefer said recently. “The ranch I have north of Forsyth, since the first of April, has had just two inches of rain.”

In pastures where Kiefer cut 1,200 round hay bales in 2011, he couldn’t muster one this year. His south-Montana pastures were so parched the grass never greened up enough to conceal the swather marks from the previous year’s hay cutting, which meant his weaning calves had little forage to transition to and their drought-stressed mothers desperately needed a break to fatten up for winter.

“On Sept. 23, we weaned them off and shipped them, a month and a week earlier than usual,” he said. And Kiefer wasn’t alone.

Across Montana, ranchers low on food, water, and even fences in areas burned by fire, are selling early. The number of cattle moving through Billings and Miles City auction yards was up more than 1,000 head a sale compared to the same dates a year earlier. Calves are moving early, but culls are also coursing through auctions as ranchers try to unload any animal not worth feeding through winter.

“The biggest reason for it has been drought conditions, reduced hay forage and hay prices that are pretty expensive,” said Jay Bodner of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. “People are looking at their bottom lines. I’ve heard of a lot of light calves coming in early. Prices are pretty high, but when you take off 200 pounds, that’s a pretty significant loss a guy has to take.”

A person could draw a line more than 400 miles across the southern portion of Montana from Dillon to Ekalaka and most ranchers along it are selling early. The area also represents the heart of Montana’s cattle economy, which produces more than $1 billion in sales annually.

Ranchers like Dave Davenport of Rosebud say the losses won’t end with what’s turned out to be one of the worst production years many can remember. Across the region, ranchers are now pregnancy testing their cows. They’re finding a lot of empty wombs because of a stressful summer. Davenport said half of his cows are “open,” meaning their wombs are empty.

Every empty cow represents one less calf to sell next year and one more mouth to feed through winter without a paycheck to cover the cost come sale time in fall 2013.

“There’s a stress factor. They told us in a fire, even a cow that was bred for 30 days would abort,” Davenport said, particularly young cows.

Several of Davenport’s cattle were stressed by fires that burned through his area this summer. With more than 360,000 acres burned in southeast Montana last summer, stress was a serious problem.

Some ranchers lost out to fire, some to drought, still others lost animals to bad water. Davenport said that near Hysham, watering holes turned bad due to evaporation and sickened cattle.

Sending calves to market early also raised problems. Many buyers, who purchase cows later in the fall and fatten them up, weren’t ready to buy in September because the crops they rely on weren’t ready.

For the cows that will now winter in dry pastures with little forage, it doesn’t get easier. Ranchers are buying $200-a-ton hay and nutrition supplements to see if they can make it to early spring and a new generation of calves.

Hay has become so expensive that Kiefer, who also raises winter wheat, chose to bale his wheat crop and use it for animal feed rather than sell it for prices exceeding $7 a bushel. There are no easy decisions, he said.

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