SHERIDAN — A day that starts at sunrise and ends long after the pink has drained from the sunset can include a lot of solitude. You’ve serviced all the equipment and it’s ready to roar. You’ve tilled, planted and irrigated the grass that has now grown and bloomed. But half of July has come and gone, and the majority of the county’s hay hasn’t been cut yet. The longer one waits to knock down the grass, the more tension builds in a rancher’s shoulders.
Curtis Laughery, a rancher in Lodge Grass, has cows counting on his hay next winter. It’s no good standing next to them in a meadow, or turning black from mold from the abundance of moisture the area has had this summer. So he’s started to fix fence, mechanic and help his wife with her lawn care. He’s called his neighbor to ask if they’ve had better luck. And they pray that Mother Nature allows for one last day of sunshine to cure the dirt so the second cutting isn’t fighting the frost.
“We’ve had over five inches of rain percentage in July I think,” Curtis Laughgery, a rancher in Lodge Grass said. “I just turned this dang field over for the fifth time.”
A hay rake is used to collect and cut hay or straw into windrows for an easier and quicker bailing process. It’s designed to fluff the hay by turning it over to dry quicker, or it’s used in the evening and early morning to protect the hay from dew. Sheridan County ranchers sometimes struggle to find the small window of time that hay becomes dry enough to bail before the hay molds without losing high percentages of the leaf forage from drying too much.
Even without much hay baled, the agriculture industry has rallied together. As each rancher is asked about haying, damages from weather and major mechanical breakdowns, each felt a deeper sense of empathy for his or her neighbors.
“Oh, I always figure if it affected me too much there’s probably another guy down the creek who got it just as bad,” Eric Butler, a rancher from Parkman said.
“I’ve had great neighbors everywhere I’ve been,” Laughery said. “If you wanna survive in this industry you have to learn how to be a good neighbor.”
Even with hay still standing, ranchers haven’t let their moods sour.
“I’ve gotten to spend a lot more time with my family this time of year than I typically would having to spend all day cooped up in a tractor,” Butler said.
“The worst part of the job is having to spend 12 hours in a tractor for days on end,” said Matt Caster, a rancher on Soldier Creek.
It’s frustrating having no control over the conditions of something that contributes so largely to one’s livelihood. But that’s what the industry is. Changing cattle prices, natural disasters and poor haying conditions. So how do they survive?
“A little bit of luck goes a long way, but some people won’t believe that,” said Tony Larsen, a rancher outside of Decker, Montana. “I think it’s a little bit of luck, good family, close friends and a work ethic.”