Kiefer isn't alone.

Ranchers across Montana 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.

That means they're selling with less weight – about 185 pounds less per animal – and that's less money for ranchers. Nearly $2 a pound less, Kiefer said.

"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.''


Montana's cattle economy generally produces more than $1 billion in sales a year.

Dave Davenport, a rancher in Rosebud, said the stress of drought and wildfires has also meant that many of his cows spontaneously aborted or failed to get pregnant this year.

"There's a stress factor. They told us in a fire, even a cow that was bred for 30 days would abort,'' Davenport said.

The drought has also hiked hay prices. The feed has become so expensive that Kiefer, who also raises winter wheat, chose to bale his wheat crop this year and use it for animal feed so he won't have to buy hay.  end mark

—From Billings Gazette/AP Newswire (Click here to read the full article.)