GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Sustained drought could force some cattle ranchers who are reaching retirement age out of the business early, if they have to sell off their herds due to impacts from the lingering dry conditions.
Rather than start over with new, unfamiliar herds when the rains come, many ranchers may just stay retired, points out Parachute rancher Dan McCarty, who is an associate director with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).
"My concern is we could see a generational exit by some of these people who are already thinking about retirement," McCarty said during the Holy Cross Cattlemen's Association 57th annual meeting in Glenwood Springs Saturday.
"A lot are not going to want to get back into the business once they sell their herds," he said.
Locally, as in other parts of the United States, the drought has impacted hay production, availability of rangeland for grazing, and the number of cattle being sent to slaughter, said McCarty, noting that the slaughter rate nationally is up 11 percent for January.
"If the moisture doesn't come, more cows will go to town," he said.
Giving the keynote presentation at Saturday's gathering of cattle producers from Garfield and Pitkin counties was John Paterson, executive director of producer education for the NCBA.
His talk, "How Does Grass, Water and the Consumer Affect Me as a Rancher," focused on the drought situation in the southwestern United States and elsewhere across the country, and its impact on the beef industry.
"I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know. ... There are some pretty hard decisions to be made," Paterson told the gathering of about 60 area cattle ranchers.
His own family's cattle ranch in southeast New Mexico has had to make several adjustments to bring water to where it needs to be to improve grazing conditions. Still, their cow conception rate remains at an "unprofitable" 52 percent, Paterson shared.
Paterson noted that last year was the sixth driest year on record in the region since 1934, and projections continue to call for below normal precipitation.
"The rains just aren't coming," he said. And when the seasonal southwestern monsoons have come in recent years, it's been later in the summer, meaning it's harder to wean calves and start them grazing on time in July.
At the same time, "I am excited about the cattle business and its future," Paterson added. "We just have this situation called drought that is keeping us from making some money right now."
Ranchers can hold out in hopes that the drought situation will change soon, he said. But many are deciding sell off parts or all of their herds in an effort to buy some time, Paterson said.
In the meantime, he said ranchers are dealing with the drought in different ways, including livestock reduction to help replenish forage supply, avoiding excessive grazing, better management of rangelands, and concentrating animals in single herds rather than keeping separate herds.
The graying of the ranching population is a concern, Paterson acknowledged. The average age of cattle ranchers in the United States is now 61, so one challenge in the industry is to encourage those studying agriculture today to stick with it.
The beef industry also faces challenges on the marketing side related to young people, Paterson said.
Demand for beef remains high among Baby Boomers and Generation X consumers, he said. But the same is not as true for the millennial generation, who are in their 20s and just now becoming consumers themselves.
Urban consumers in particular know little about the beef industry, and what it takes to get the product to market, he said.
Internationally, Paterson said China represents the largest emerging market for beef producers.
Also at Saturday's meeting, ranchers heard updates on state and national legislative issues and other matters from the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and other agencies.
The Holy Cross Cattlemen's Association maintains a total membership of about 128, with a mailing list of close to 300 ranchers and ranching-related businesses and organizations, according to the association's new membership chair, Ginny Harrington.