Another year of drought could spell disaster for ag community

Feb 1, 2013

Credit Photo courtesy the National Weather Service

Last year was the driest year Wyoming has seen in more than a century, and the dry spell has not let up. As a result, farmers and ranchers have had to make tough decisions and are deeply concerned about their livelihood for the coming year. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.

WILLOW BELDEN: Twenty-twelve was a rough year for Rocky Foy. He’s a rancher near Glendo, and he usually grows about 400 tons of hay each year, which is enough to support his herd of cattle. But last year, he produced only 28 tons. That left him with two options: sell cows, or buy hay. He chose to do both, selling off about 15 percent of his herd, and purchasing hay for the rest. The hay was hard to come by, though.

ROCKY FOY: I got started early and I found some local. But towards the end, most of it was gone. We were getting hay out of North Dakota.

BELDEN: And it was expensive – about double what it used to cost.

FOY: Plus the trucking. … Coming out of North Dakota, the freight cost as much as the load of hay.

BELDEN: UW Extension Agent Dallas Mount says ranchers all over Wyoming faced the same problems. He says most held onto as many cows as possible, because they didn’t want to destroy a herd they’d spent decades building up. But he says keeping the cows came at a significant cost. Most ranchers lost about 200 dollars per cow.

DALLAS MOUNT: When you look at that the average profit from a cow in a normal year is a around hundred dollars, then essentially we’ve invested our profitability for the next two years, to make it through last year.

BELDEN: Mount says if the drought ends soon, the investment will pay off.

MOUNT: The expectation and the hope is that with livestock numbers down all over the United States, if we ever do get rain again, the price will be strong. So if we can keep the cows together, hopefully we’ll have some pretty good prices to sell into in the coming years.

BELDEN: But so far, the weather is not cooperating. Snowpack is below normal, and the

National Weather Service reports that nearly 90 percent of the state is experiencing “severe” drought, or worse. Rancher Rocky Foy says another year of drought would be devastating.

FOY: If it’s another year like last year where it didn’t even green up, and we end up … buying hay again, it’s going to be very difficult for about all of us, I think, because there’s just not that big of a margin to start with.

BELDEN: Hay producers are worried, too. Twenty-twelve wasn’t too bad for them, because many had leftover hay from the year before, and they were able to sell it for high prices. So even though they grew less, they didn’t necessarily lose money. But now, their reserves of hay are used up. And ranchers across the country are downsizing their herds.

KEVIN BAARS: There may not be any cows in the country to sell the hay to. If we have another year like last year … it was unprecedented.

BELDEN: That’s Kevin Baars, a hay producer near Lusk. He says the only reason he was able to grow hay at all last year is because he has an irrigation pivot.

BAARS: The amount that we had to run our circle was just amazing. Typically you can shut it off after a rain of some sort, and we pretty much let the thing run from the time we got done

putting up one cutting of hay until we started the next. And it just ran steady.

BELDEN: And that drew down the water level in his well. By the end of the summer, it was producing 100 gallons a minute less than it was supposed to.

Still, Extension Agent Dallas Mount says there’s room for optimism.

MOUNT: Winter snow has very little to do with actual forage production on the rangeland. …

More than anything, spring rains have the greatest impact. So that’s where really all the money is riding right now – is on the spring rains.

BELDEN: Mount says good spring rains could more than make up for low snowpack. But if the rains don’t come, he says the ag community will be in major disaster mode. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.

Radio, I’m Willow Belden.