include "/usr/home/eagle/crestoneeagle.com/html/footer.html"; ?>
Crestone Eagle, August 2002:
Ranchin’ Rhythms: The drought of 2002: Death Knell
Picture your granddaughter calling to you from
the railing of the corral. You lift her into the saddle with
you, and ride out to check the cows. She wants to stop and
see the old log cabin that your great-grandparents built when
they came out from Missouri in a covered wagon. Your grandpa's
first artesian well, its flow reduced this year, is still
keeping the giant cottonwoods alive, where the cows rest in
the heat of the day. Grandpa used to tell how they were just
little twigs when he planted them. Your granddaughter laughs
and points. "Look Grandpa, those calves are playing chase."
They brake to stare at you with their big brown eyes—curious.
It's a good herd. Nice strong cows. Good mothers. Good dispositions,
but wild enough to protect their calves from coyotes and to
forage in the far corners of the ranch. Tough, yet manageable.
That bull was a good investment—expensive at $2,200,
but well worth it in strong calves. But sadness overwhelms
you as you watch the sun set. Tomorrow you must load up half
of them and take them to the sale barn. Hopefully, if it's
a snowy winter, you'll make it. If next year's the same—must
you walk away forever?
That's the question Valley ranchers are trying not to face
as they cope with the driest year in recorded history. While
most ranchers have not sold out yet, almost all of them are
under incredible stress, trying to make the decisions that
will allow them to hold on for another year, while they pray
for rain and a snowy winter.
Family farmers and ranchers live on one of the tightest profit
margins for any type of business, and this year virtually
everyone will operate at a loss—in most cases a huge
loss. Whether ranchers will be able to save their capital
investments may determine whether they have to sell the spread.
Capital investments for ranchers are cows. But unlike buildings
and machinery, cows have personalities, and they bond with
you. As one local rancher says, "A cow is a piece of
the person." Bulls, of course, are the other half of
the equation, and their genetics will influence your herd
for years to come. Ranchers work on their breeding programs
over decades, often building on the efforts of their fathers
and grandfathers. For ranchers, calves are the crop—but
a living crop that you feed, doctor and care for. And when
you look at it, it looks back.
Of course, the land is another capital investment; its role
is to support the livestock. Water, dry-land pasture, irrigated
hay meadows, private and public land leases—all of these
are items in your business plan, and a good rancher will know
them all well. He or she may have spent years, even generations,
moving the water to the right places, encouraging the alfalfa
and meadow grasses, and timing cuttings just right to get
maximum volume, while avoiding the mature fox tail that will
pierce cattle's tongues and throats. Knowing the weather patterns,
and the texture and drying time of your hay crop, is crucial
to getting the volume and nutrition that will keep your calves
growing and your cows healthy through their next pregnancy.
In an oversimplified picture of a normal year, it is pasture
that sustains your cow and calf through the summer and fall.
A healthy pasture will allow a rancher to feed calves off
of the land and sell them in the fall, weighing about 500
pounds. Dormant pasture grasses supplemented with a good hay
crop will then feed the stock through the winter and early
spring, usually until summer pastures green up again at the
end of May.
Most ranchers own some pasture and hay fields, but also have
a public land grazing lease in the mountains where they take
their cows and calves for the summer, allowing their winter
pasture in the Valley to grow undisturbed for a season. Since
grasses evolved with grazing animals, proper rotations and
moving of livestock, as well as keeping the numbers of animals
balanced with the natural resources, will allow a rancher
to maintain a healthy environment for the herd and the land.
But this is not a normal year. Water is extremely scarce,
and ranchers are feeling the crunch. Wells are going dry in
some parts of the Valley, and most ditches that normally provide
irrigation water are dry. Peggy Godfrey makes hay on shares
for Candy Marthaler, who still has irrigation water for her
meadows; but harvests are well below normal, and so is Peggy's
Many ranchers will get little, if any, hay crop this year,
and most pastures are dry and unproductive. That means that
many will have to buy hay to feed during the summer, and most
will have to buy for the winter. According to Marvin Reynolds,
livestock agent for Colorado State University Cooperative
Extension, instead of feeding just the cow for six months
at about $250, many will have to feed the cow for up to ten
months, and the calf for the summer, at a cost of about $920.
This could mean their costs for raising one calf would almost
quadruple—just for feed.
Other costs, such as people to work with the cattle, equipment,
payments and interest on mortgages, taxes and possibly water,
would be in addition. At the same time, the price ranchers
can expect for calves has fallen from roughly $1/lb to $.78/lb,
and can be expected to fall further if the market remains
flooded. Therefore, while they might normally expect to receive
$500 per calf, in today's market they would get about $390,
Clearly a losing proposition.
There are, of course, variables, and those are what many
ranchers are trying to work with. Many are selling their capital—their
cows and bulls. There is great sadness that goes with selling
an animal that you have raised and worked with for several
years, especially if you know their fate is a McDonald's burger.
One multi-generational family spread is selling half their
cows, and grazing the rest on their hay meadows. Instead of
selling hay, they will have to buy hay this winter at premium
prices, but they hope to save the other half of the herd.
According to Marvin Reynolds, some ranchers are trucking
their "pairs" to feed lots in Kansas and eastern
Colorado, where they will pay for their board. Others are
making arrangements to rent pasture from ranchers in the Ozarks
and the Dakotas. However, most are just selling cows. Marvin
guesses 40% of the cows have been sold out of the Valley,
and he expects many more sales.
He wonders how anyone can continue with a one-year loss so
great. "Many are doing so by creative feeding alternatives
and a lot of prayer." Skip Crowe, of the Slash LD, guesses
that 50% of all cows in Colorado will be gone by the end of
the year. He predicts that many ranchers will quit the business,
especially if another dry year follows this one. This saddens
him, because the writing on the wall suggests the ranches
will become subdivisions. You can hear the sadness in his
voice as he contemplates the San Luis Valley filled with houses,
instead of ranches and cows.
Back to Archives
to the Eagle!