After a hard winter finally broke in March, Patrick O’Toole hoped for a good year. Operating at the Ladder Ranch north of Steamboat Springs, along the Colorado-Wyoming border, O’Toole and his wife, Sharon, have several bands of sheep as well as cattle.
Sheep normally graze through winter amid the high desert sagebrush of Colorado’s northwest corner. Last winter’s snow was so deep, the sheep had to be moved.
Then came COVID-19, the pandemic that barred entry by a third of the sheepherders who normally arrive from Peru to tend the sheep grazing around Mt. Zirkel and other peaks of the Park Range. The O’Toole family figured out remedies, even putting grandchildren on the range for cattle and finding other alternatives for sheep. “We really had to improvise to have all the sheep handled correctly,” O’Toole says. A bigger issue has been the closed restaurants and cruise ships that have dampened demand for lamb chops. “Those markets fell of the edge of the table,” he says.
And then there’s the drought. The deep snows of winter—water content was still 111 percent of average in northwestern Colorado on April 1—were eviscerated by what is seemingly becoming a new normal, a warm spring robbing soils and vegetation of moisture and hence less water in the Little Snake River. It is in line with what happened across the West, a more than 100 percent snowpack in the Colorado River Basin yielding just over 50 percent of average runoff. At the headwaters north of Steamboat, O’Toole sees “crispy” surroundings and risk of wildfire that, with a dry lightning storm, would be terrifying. “The whole forest is very, very dry.”
Colorado farmers and ranchers have patience in abundance. Agriculture demands it. This year many might want a special consultation with Job. Commodity prices have sagged, COVID-19 has caused multi-faceted disruptions, and then there’s drought. Maps show the state blanketed in blotches of yellow, tan and blood red, the latter most notable in the state’s southwestern section. Conspicuously absent has been green. The summer monsoon has been stingy.
“It’s hard to find a lot of bright spots on the ag scene these days. Starting with the commodity prices, corn prices are low, wheat prices are low, livestock prices bounced off decades-lows recently,” says Tom Lipetzky, director of marketing programs for the Colorado Department of Agriculture. “A lot of this goes back to the pandemic.”
COVID-19 has affected everything from how wheat-threshing crews were organized to where food gets delivered. Dairies accustomed to filling cartons sent to schools and restaurants had to shift supplies to larger demand in grocery stores. Something similar happened to beef supply lines after the dark curtain of the coronavirus descended. Normally half of Colorado beef goes to restaurants, half to groceries. As with milk, groceries picked up the slack after restaurants closed.
There’s been a shift to local connections. The rapid spread of the coronavirus in meat-packing plants stopped production at the JBC plant near Greeley and slowed it at the Cargill plant in Fort Morgan. Smaller companies could barely keep up with demand for slaughtering and processing to fill new freezers in basements.
Farmers markets benefited from the new attention to local sourcing. Rosalind May, executive director of the Colorado Farmers Market Association, relays reports of brisk business at markets in Montrose, Durango and Alamosa.
But for farmers who depend on regional and global markets, this has been a year of struggle.
“In some ways, [COVID-19] has been the lesser of our worries,” says former Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Stulp from his farm south of Lamar, in southeastern Colorado. “Low commodity prices are the most negative. There was downward dollar pressure in the cattle sector when the packing plants shut down because of [COVID-19] in their employees. The tariffs and trade wars hurt individuals and our communities. And drought—no stranger to southeast Colorado—aggravates the situation.”
Production of wheat, which is harvested in early summer, was down 53 percent this year in Colorado, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. That’s 46.5 million bushels compared to 98 million bushels last year. “That’s just a huge reduction,” observes Les Owen, director of conservation for the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
Drought has scorched southcentral Colorado’s San Luis Valley. On Tuesday, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg met with farmers and ranchers at the potato-growing powerhouse of Center, as well as with farmers at Alamosa and Saguache.
Impacts of drought have been broad but not uniform. Kelly Spitzer and her husband, Greg, own and operate three grain elevators on the Eastern Plains, one at Wiley, just north of Lamar. After five good years, she reports, they project harvest of corn for grain will be down 80 percent to 90 percent around Wiley, due in part to reduced irrigation water supplies from the Arkansas River. At the grain elevators they own at Vona and Bethune, located 160 miles southeast of Denver along Interstate 70, production is down only 50 percent. More corn there comes from areas irrigated with Ogallala Aquifer water. In both places, she reports it being “really hot and dry” for the last several weeks, creating need for even more water. “It’s been bad for the corn crop,” she says.
Most of the corn from the Wiley area will be reduced to silage, the entire plant ground up for lower-value feed for cattle, with no attempt to shell the grain. This produces less income for local communities. Still, the cattle need their feed, which will cost operators of feeder operations for both cattle and hogs more money.
Near Cope, 120 miles east of Denver, Troy Schneider produces wheat, corn and cattle on 1,250 acres of irrigated land and 2,600 acres of dryland. Drought has reduced the yield he can expect from the 320 acres of dryland corn he planted this year, but he hopes careful allocation of his permitted Ogallala water will deliver normal yield from his 875 acres of irrigated corn despite hot summer winds. But what price will he get for that corn?
Trade uncertainty coupled with coronavirus made the market wobbly. “The shutdown of the economy did a number on us. It definitely did,” says Schneider. Normally, he ships his corn north to the big feedlots at Yuma and also to the ethanol plant. Roughly a third of Colorado corn goes to ethanol production. But ethanol production has dropped, reflecting sliding prices for petroleum. The virus suppressed travel even as Russia and Saudi Arabia engaged in a price war, swamping global markets. And, of course, there’s the drought, part of what Schneider calls a double whammy. Some of the dryland corn will be baled, to be used for lower-quality cattle feed.
One year is bad enough. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report issued Monday, 64 percent of the state is now considered to have poor or very poor conditions on pasture and range. Two years would be devastating. Faced with a two-year drought in 2012-2013, some cattle ranchers such as the Flying Diamond of Kit Carson expanded into the Wet Mountain Valley to become more diversified geographically.
“Widespread economic impacts of multi-season drought is something we’re not in the middle of right now and hopefully will not be,” says Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. A second year of drought, he says, will cause livestock producers to start liquidating holdings.
“That’s why I’m really counting on this winter being a significant snowfall winter,” says Fankhauser. “It will be necessary, without a doubt.”
Allen Best is a freelance writer and editor of Mountain Town News, based in Arvada, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.