As drought cuts the hay crop, ranchers face slaughter of herds in Colorado and other western states

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – With his cattle ranch threatened by a deepening drought, Jim Stanko is not encouraged by the approaching storm, signaled by the sound of thunder.

“Thunder means lightning, and lightning can start fires,” said Stanko, who fears he will have to sell half his herd of about 90 cows in Routt County, outside Steamboat Springs, if he cannot harvest enough hay to feed them.

As drought worsens across the West and ushers in an early fire season, ranchers are among those feeling the pain. Their hay yields have dropped, leading some to make the difficult decision to sell animals. To avoid the high cost of feed, many ranchers grow hay to feed their herds during winter, when snow covers the grass they normally graze.

But this year, Stanko’s hay harvest so far is even worse than last year. One field produced just 10 bales, down from 30 last year, amid heat waves and historically low water levels in the Yampa River, its source of irrigation.

Some ranchers are not expecting to reduce the number of mouths they need to feed.

At the Loma Livestock auction in western Colorado, sales were very strong earlier this month, although their peak season is typically not until the fall, when most calves are ready to sell. Fueling the action are ranchers eager to unload cattle while prices are still high.

“Everybody is going to sell their cows, so it’s probably smarter to do it now while the price goes up before the market flooded,” said Buzz Bates, a rancher from Moab, Utah, who sold 209 pairs of cows and calves. , about 30% of his herd.

Bates decided to cut back on his herd after a fire started by an abandoned campfire destroyed part of his pasture, slowing down his ability to feed them.

Climate has long influenced the way ranchers manage their livestock and land, but those options have increasingly focused on how herds can withstand drought conditions, said Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of natural resources. of the National Association of Cattle Meat.

“If it rained 4 inches, there wouldn’t be a cow to sell for five months,” said George Raftopoulos, owner of the auction house.

Raftopoulos says it encourages people to think twice before parting with their cows. Having to replace them later could cost more than paying for additional hay, he said.

Herd slaughter can be an operational blow to ranchers. It often means separating from selected cows for genetic traits that are optimal for breeding and are considered long-term, dividend-paying investments.

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