Hamburger. Steak. Prime rib. However you like it, beef is what’s for dinner on many local tables.
But the folks who put it on the plate are dealing with the consequences of two years of drought and looking at another one coming up if some good precipitation doesn’t come our way.
“People who live in a city, they don’t think about where their water comes from,” said Mae Morley, who ranches in the southwest part of La Plata County. “But for us, whatever’s in the mountains is our irrigation water, and when that’s gone, we’re done.”
Morley and her husband, George, have sold off half their herd in the last two years.
“The folks on the west side of the county have been hurt worse than anyone else,” said Wayne Semler, the recently elected president of the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemen’s Association who runs cattle and farms south of Bayfield. He has shrunk his herd between 25 and 30 percent in the last couple of years. “With no irrigation, water tables dropping and springs drying up, they’re really struggling.”
The heavy rains last fall and a predicted El Niño weather pattern, which generally brings us moisture, may make this year a little better, he said.
“Last year’s snow melted into the ground because it was so dry, so there was no runoff” he said. “This year, at least, the soil moisture’s a little higher.”
Morley said rain this year is more critical than ever as the drought continues.
“We’re all praying for rain,” she said. “Tell people we all need to pray for rain.”
Cattle ranching 101
Most cattle ranchers run cow/calf operations, where the calves are fattened up during the summer for market in the fall.
Some ranchers feed the heifers, or mama cattle, on their own land all year long, grazing in the pasture for the summer, feeding them hay grown in their fields during the colder months.
“We fed our cattle longer than normal,” Semler said about 2013. “And our hay last year, some fields we cut once, some none at all. We had a grasshopper problem, too.”
Other ranchers, like Brice Lee, whose ranch is south of Hesperus, move them from private pastures in New Mexico, where they’ve wintered the heifers, to private pastures in Colorado for the summer.
“Last year, we only got four days of water, when we normally get 30 to 40,” Lee said. “Most everybody’s had to adjust. We haven’t harvested hay in two years, and we haven’t had a lawn for several years because we didn’t want to waste the water.”
Still others winter the cattle on their own land, moving them during the summer to pastures in the mountains where they have grazing permits on Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management land.
“We took two trips up to the mountains to see what forage and water was available last year before deciding how many we could take,” said third-generation rancher Steve Pargin, who moves his cattle from near Forest Lakes to the Piedra River Basin. His herd has shrunk about 20 percent from a couple of years ago. “We started making adjustments going from the fall of 2012 into the spring of 2013. We sold maybe 40, 50, 60 cows in June because we just couldn’t do it.”
Federal government grazing permits were restricted last year because of the drought to protect the forests from an environmental standpoint.
“Forest Service permits reduced herd sizes last year,” Semler said. “They reduced the number of days you could graze or the number of cattle or both. Some people had to sell their cattle early.”
If hay crops don’t come in, ranchers have to buy hay, which can drain the profits for a whole year.
Lee is waiting to see how much precipitation we get in the next month or two before he decides whether to try to plant hay this year. He also has been watching his topsoil blow away with the recent high winds.
“The hay fields are just hanging on,” he said. “If rain comes, we’ll go ahead and make hay.”
Adding to the challenge in his part of the county is an invasion of army worms, which come out when it’s dry for long periods.
“They eat everything that tries to turn green,” Lee said. “This morning (Thursday), we had about two inches of snow, and they were crawling around in the snow trying to eat. They’re in a smaller area, south of Kline this year, but we had them in 2003 bad, and in a larger area, down in New Mexico, all around here and on the Florida Mesa.”
Even where there is some irrigation water – in the southeast part of the county, thanks to some storage in Lemon and Vallecito reservoirs – it doesn’t mean there’s enough to grow adequate crops.
“We sold calves last year that we wouldn’t otherwise have sold because even where there was water, the hay didn’t grow as it normally does,” Semler said. “The dry weather seems to have stunted the growth.”
Price of beef may rise
“Fat cattle hit a record high price last month because of a decrease in numbers as a whole,” Semler said. “The U.S. cow/calf herd level is comparable to the 1950s. If and when we start to rebuild, people will retain some heifers from the market for that, which may keep prices high.
“Cows are kind of like a factory,” he said. “If you don’t have cows, you don’t have calves, and if you don’t have calves, you don’t have a continuing cash flow.”
The cost of everything ranchers depend on may also add to a higher price for beef at market and thus in the store.
“Everything – fertilizers, tractor tires, fuel, parts – they all keep climbing,” Semler said.
Pargin agreed, adding that it always seems to be something.
“Since I started in 1975, what used to cost $1,000 now costs $10,000,” he said. “My sons got in the reclamation business with the oil fields because it pays lots better than farming. It’s just not an easy deal; it takes an awful lot of money to operate an ag operation, and if one thing goes wrong, it really hurts.”