Climate and Cattle

Cattle ranching in Jackson County

Cattle ranching (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Drought can devastate Colorado’s agricultural industry, as we’ve seen this year in the Arkansas River Basin. An article pulled from this blog for the Grand Junction Free Press’ Water Lines column begins to highlight the impacts southeastern Colorado is seeing:

Area producers are seeing economic impacts — the 2013 winter wheat crop was almost nonexistent, corn planting for 2013 was less than 5 percent of average and there’s been at least an 80 percent loss of rangeland — projected crop loss for the region is more than $72 million. The impact is wide ranging and producers worry that they haven’t seen the end of it.

“From an agricultural standpoint this is a big area of the state and agriculture is the state’s number one economic area,” Finnessy said. Economics in the Arkansas Basin can impact the state’s economy as a whole.

Lost rangeland and high feed prices have caused cattle ranching to take a beating. Many ranchers in that part of the state are selling off their herds, from a Colorado Public Radio story aired yesterday:

John Campbell runs the auction. He says that because of the drought he’s auctioned off 3 times the normal amount of cattle this summer. And though that may be good for business today, he’s worried about the future.“When you sell off the factory, we won’t have the natural increase that those cows would generate for upcoming years,” said Campbell, who added some ranchers have totally liquidated their herds.

There’s worry that the cattle sell-off won’t have an impact just on Campbell’s auction, or the one across the street, but whole region’s economy – from the hotels to the banks to the restaurants.

“We’re fortunate, we’ve been here 70-some years, we’ve seen this time and time again,” Campbell said. “We don’t like it, but we’re just like the rancher, we tighten our belt up and it’ll mean we’ll lay some people off and kind of work with more of a skeleton crew.”

Campbell’s not optimistic that ranchers will quickly build their herds back, even if the rains return.  He notes that ranchers tend to be older, in their 60s and 70s. They’re not about to go out and borrow millions of dollars to rebuild.

“Being of conservative nature, they’ll work back into their numbers slow, slow, slow,” he predicted.

Some ranchers have talked about the drought in dramatic terms, comparing it to the dust bowl of the 1930s. Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken says that’s not an exaggeration.

“When you have year after year after year of drought that’s when the impacts become quite extraordinary,” Doesken said. “Traveling across southeast Colorado as the landscape had become nearly barren.”

Despite some recent rains, Doeskan says the region is nowhere close to being out of the woods.

In addition to immediate economic concerns, dry conditions change the way farmers use water. From a Headwaters magazine article, “The Ever-Evolving Farmer”,

Rollbacks in planting during dry years reduce short-term crop losses in a profession defined by its risks and unexpected costs. Longer-term  adaptations in farming practices, crop rotations, water use and irrigation technology are helping farmers use water more efficiently, while innovative new partnerships are also exploring how farming can persist in the face of limited water supplies. Some strategies move farther afield: Rusler’s past investments in an onion packing shed and equipment for processing and packaging beans have supported his family through the lean times.

Lessons for Colorado farmers and ranchers haven’t come easy—or cheap. Nor have they all come soon enough to keep some farmers in business. In addition to lingering drought conditions, increased demands for water from communities and industry have combined to diminish supplies for irrigated farms. Amid the pressure, some farmers have sold off water rights to cities or energy companies, while others, including Rusler and his family, are forging ahead into the parched future.

“We know there’s interest [in buying our water], and there are days when you think about that,” Rusler says, “but we’re so busy with how we make our living, we just keep our nose to the grindstone.”

Have you seen impacts to agriculture on your farm or near your home? Share them here.


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