2002 drought: `The worst year I’ve seen’
The record-breaking drought of 2002 is forcing ranchers to sell their herds or buy costly hay and play an anxious waiting game.According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, this year’s snow and runoff measurements are the driest in Colorado’s recorded history.Add to that a summer with record-breaking heat and little rainfall and the region’s ranchers are facing a drought that’s monumental in scope and potentially disastrous.Without enough moisture, pastures and public grazing lands have dried up, hay prices are skyrocketing and ranchers face difficult decisions. “[Regional ranchers] are trying to determine what their break-even points are,” said Leon Padia, county executive director for the Farm Service Agency in Glenwood Springs. That’s especially complicated this year due to a variety of factors:-The availability of hay and related shipping costs.-The faint promise of rainfall.-Low hay and pasture yields.-Prices on the cattle market.Ranchers have to decide whether it’s financially worth the risk to hold on to their mother and calf stock, or to bail out if conditions get even worse.”I’ve worn out a box of pencils trying to figure this out,” said Frank Daley, a 23-year veteran cattle rancher in Divide Creek southwest of New Castle. “This is the worst year I’ve seen.”
Drought problems have been building for years, and ranchers have known they were headed for a rough go of it. This year is the fourth year of the current drought, Padia said, whose Farm Service Agency office, serving seven counties, is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”They didn’t want to, but ranchers here have been overgrazing because of this ongoing shortfall. That means regrowth naturally has a higher weed content in it, and isn’t as high quality as it could be,” he said.Some ranchers initially chose to cull their herds this spring, once they realized how bad the snowpack and runoff numbers were, he said. Knowing that private pasture and grazing lands wouldn’t be producing enough feed, ranchers determined which cattle would go first.”That’s when a lot of heifers were sold,” he said of the springtime sell-off. “Those who opted to, sold their heifers first and kept their mother cows and calves.”
“I culled the herd earlier this year,” said Eric Porter, a third-generation rancher working in Dry Hollow, south of Silt, who expected consistently dry weather.He sold a few head at the Delta Sale Barn, though ranchers who have larger numbers to sell typically transport their cattle to Brush or Fort Collins for large-volume sales.Padia said he knows of one rancher who decided to do just that this spring. The rancher sold his entire herd and got out of the ranching business altogether – a momentous decision to make after years of ranching and perfecting the genetic lines of a particular herd.
Now, area ranchers still in the business are in limbo. “We’re in a waiting game,” Padia said. Permits for grazing on public land continue through Oct. 12.”If the rains keep coming like they have this past week, we’re hopeful we’ll have enough regrowth to sustain existing herds,” Padia said, looking to the winter ahead. But that’s been tough.Daley said he yielded just 50 percent out his hay production in 2001 due to drought conditions, and at this point in the summer, he’s only at 5 percent. Daley has already secured a backup source of hay in case there’s not enough growth to last.He purchased a significant amount of hay earlier this summer from Idaho and had it transported to his ranch in Divide Creek. Now, acting like a literal stock broker, he’s waiting to see if his hay purchase will make sense in the long run, or if he’ll still need to sell off some of his stock – no pun intended – this fall.”We just have to see how this all plays out,” said Daley. Porter, too, is stockpiling hay he bought from a grower in eastern Utah.
Cattle ranchers are having to search far and wide for hay, Padia said, because horse ranchers have already bought up all the existing hay in the area.And with the drought, hay prices are high, and with the large volumes cattle ranchers need, buying locally is prohibitive for the local rancher.That’s partly why Padia’s office has been inundated by hundreds of disaster relief applications from ranchers seeking drought aid.”See these files?” he asked, pointing to a stack of red folders on his desk crammed with paperwork. “Right now I have over 200 disaster relief applications, and out of those, 99 percent are from cattle ranchers.”For Porter, it’s all part of the ranch life.”Ranchers are used to tough times,” he said. “This is just another tough time.”Still, both Padia and Porter are managing some level of optimism amid the dire circumstances.”Oh yes,” replied Porter when asked if the recent rains are allowing him to breathe a little easier.”This recent rain we’re getting helps improve our mental attitudes,” Padia said.
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