The hottest year on record and the worst drought in a generation has ranchers across America switching to Plan B – early weaning, culling, feeding hay or shipping cattle early. Some ranchers in areas hardest hit by drought are forced to sell their entire herds.

The increase in cattle receipts at auction markets has also driven prices lower, compounding the losses from Mother Nature’s wrath.

“We’re seeing larger runs of cattle than normal, and a lot of small calves,” says Mark Harmon, Joplin Regional Stockyards, Joplin, Mo. “The price of calves is about $20 (per hundredweight) cheaper than it was in mid-June.” Heavier runs of cull cows are also occurring, but Harmon says cow prices are off only a few dollars per hundredweight.

Cattle runs are also significantly higher in Wyoming this year. Michael Schmitt, one of the owners of the Torrington Livestock Market, Torrington, Wyo., told the Associated Press his market normally sells about 3,500 head of cattle in May and 1,800 in June. This year the market sold 18,000 in May and more than 17,000 in June.

Ranchers are also forced to ship stockers and yearlings off pastures early this year due to the dry weather and lack of forage. Cattle grazing the native grass pastures in the Kansas Flint Hills are moving about two weeks early to feedyards, and lighter weigh-ups are the norm.

Harmon said several of his customers who have cattle in Flint Hills are shipping cattle this week. “We expect those yearlings will be 50 to 120 pounds light,” he said. “Normally those cattle would ship from July 20 to August 1.”

Feeding hay to cows in an effort to hang on until it rains is an option for some ranchers, but not all.  Hay production in Western Nebraska and Wyoming has been short this year which removes that option from a rancher’s Plan B. Buying hay is an option, but hay supplies are scarce this year, and the higher prices for hay make that strategy unworkable for most.

Arkansas is another area hit especially hard by drought, and hay production was nearly non-existent. Many ranchers are forced to sell their entire herds.

Southwest Missouri has been a little more fortunate than their neighbors to the south. “We had great early hay production in this area,” Harmon said. “And we had more rain north of Interstate 44 than they have had south of the Interstate. South of here the ranchers are weaning everything early and trying to salvage their best cows. The situation is critical.”

Harmon also noted that much the corn in the area has already been cut as silage. “If it doesn’t have a pivot (irrigation) it’s becoming silage.”