The Crestone Eagle, August 2002:

Ranchin’ Rhythms: The drought of 2002: Death Knell for ranchers?

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 share.

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.

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