‘Disheartening:’ As Colorado’s drought continues, family ag operations feel the heat | PostIndependent.com

‘Disheartening:’ As Colorado’s drought continues, family ag operations feel the heat

Unless Mother Nature intervenes, many cattle producers in northwestern Colorado might be forced to thin their herds

Del Sherrod points out which fields were irrigated and which were not able to get water due to this year's drought on his ranch near Collbran.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

At the Rocking U7 Ranch near Collbran, Del and Lynne Sherrod sold half their herd of Black Angus last year due to drought conditions.

They’re likely to cut the herd by half once again as persistent drought conditions have seriously restricted the Sherrod’s supply of irrigation water.

The 120 head that remain are vocal about letting Lynne Sherrod know they’re not fans of the drought diet, where supplemental feed has taken the place of their luscious grass and hay meals.

Del Sherrod checks on his cattle in one of the grazing pastures on the Rocking U7 Ranch near Collbran.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent
A grazing pasture at the Rocking U7 Ranch near Collbran that should be lush and green but was unable to grow due to this year's drought.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“So I went walking this morning, and it’s just disheartening when it’s the middle of June, and you see how dry the grass is, and it’s just crumbling underneath your feet,” Lynne Sherrod said. “When I get up and walk in the morning, I can hear them, and it’s not the feed they love and appreciate. You know they’re not happy, and you’re doing the best you can for them.”

The Sherrods have also let some pasture go but still own and lease land.

“If this summer goes the same way it went last summer, we’ll be getting rid of some cows,” Lynne Sherrod said.

The last line of water to the Rocking U7 Ranch barely trickles through the rocks due to this year's drought.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent
Del Sherrod closes a gate after checking on his cattle at the Rocking U7 Ranch near Collbran.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“You can’t lose them if you don’t have them,” she said, quoting her husband.

“That’s got to be our philosophy. Everything is a gift, and we have to take care of it, and if we can’t take care of it, we need to pass it along. We need to ensure that this land will recover.”

As Carbondale rancher Sean Martin cut hay June 21, he noted that even the old-timers are likening the severity of the current drought to the drought of 1977, during which the state saw record low stream flows forcing the imposition of water restrictions on municipalities and agriculture producers alike.

Martin remained optimistic about the conditions he’s seeing near Carbondale.

“I’d say we’re looking better than last year for sure,” Martin said.

“But on irrigated ground, we’re 70% of what we’d consider normal.”

Martin said the black Angus herd he works with went from 220 last year to 130.

“I think I’m probably going to have to get down to 70 or 80,” Martin surmised.

Del Sherrod checks on his cattle in one of the grazing pastures on the Rocking U7 Ranch near Collbran.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, is expecting an “extremely tough summer” due to drought conditions and subsequent wildfires.

“I think wildfire is going to be more aggressive than it was a year ago,” Fankhauser said.

“We have a lot of producers that put up feed last year that aren’t going to be able to this year. They’ll start shipping more feed into Colorado. We’ll see the price increase. We always see this. The producers are going to have to decide if they want to feed their way through the drought or reduce numbers. The latter is what I suspect will be the case.”

Fankhauser said cattle producers are holding on to their herds as long as they can, with older operations having more flexibility to do so due to having additional acreage or reserves.

Ginny Harrington, membership chairman for the Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association, said that she doesn’t know of anyone selling cattle right now due to drought conditions, but it’s a concern that’s weighing on many in the industry.

Heifers and their calves hang out around the one ditch line of water in a grazing pasture at the Rocking U7 Ranch near Collbran.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“There are many folks in Carbondale and throughout the Roaring Fork Valley that are already hauling water,” Harrington said.

“We had folks reporting that they’re hauling to their summer private properties right now. I’ve heard of people taking rest, which means they won’t use their forest permit this year because there is no water. I’ve heard of people scrambling to find other summer pasture options.”

Hay prices are also a concern, Harrington said.

“Growing our winter forage, and getting our hay crops, are going to be a real concern — or being able to purchase hay. The cost of hay goes up tremendously. Shopping becomes quite expensive.”

Harrington said ranchers and farmers in the area have worked hard for many, many years to employ the best conservation practices for the land and wildlife’s sake.

This drought, Harrington said, is a threat to the entire valley’s ecosystem.

“It’s not only a concern for us but a concern for the elk and deer and wildlife, too. We provide healthy ecosystems for the wildlife, too, via irrigation coming through. Stock ponds on the mountains provide water for the wildlife,” Harrington said.

Del Sherrod checks on his cattle in one of the grazing pastures on the Rocking U7 Ranch near Collbran.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Tom Harrington, Ginny’s husband, echoed her comments about the priorities of local cattle ranchers during these dry times.

“What beef producers are thinking about is taking care of their animals and taking care of their resources,” Tom said.

“But they will do what’s best to take care of their animals and take care of the land. As beef producers, we’re going to take care of our animals and our land. Without those two, we’re not going to be able to take care of ourselves.”

Despite rains, drought conditions persist

Drought conditions are expected to persist, despite the recent rainfalls which failed to make up for the total precipitation deficit, according to data from the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. The NWS definition of a long-term drought includes a drought lasting longer than six months.

Since Fall 2019, precipitation has been well-below normal, leading to low moisture content across the region into the winter season.

“Dry conditions for both the mountains and valleys in most of western Colorado became entrenched in April and continued through early June,” the drought summary states.

“Early summer rains have been sorely lacking, keeping precipitation well-below normal over a large portion of western Colorado.”

The precipitation this year has ranged from below to well-below normal.

Winter conditions remained dry until March, which was above normal precipitation in some locations.

Since then, things have stayed dry.

The impacts include:

Low soil moisture

Lower stream flows

Dry vegetation

Increased fire danger

Reporter Shannon Marvel can be reached at 605-350-8355 or smarvel@postindependent.com.

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