The close company Terry Walter keeps these days is probably similar to that of other local livestock feeders and producers, who are responsible for hundreds of thousands of animals but are heading into this winter with feed in short supply.
“My two best friends are my (animal) nutritionist ... and my pastor,” said the Weld County rancher and owner of Walter Angus near Hudson, Colo.
With fall harvests recently wrapping up, livestock owners and feeders now have a clearer picture of how much fodder they’ll have for their animals this winter.
And because this year’s historic and widespread drought limited production of corn and other crops locally and across the U.S., many in Weld County have reached the same conclusion: They’re going to have to get resourceful and creative to keep all of those hungry mouths fed.
Matt Buyers — vice president of JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, which is the largest cattle feeder in Colorado, with feedlots near Kersey and Gilcrest — said the company took in 35 percent less corn silage this fall than it had targeted.
Mike Harper — owner of Harper’s Feedlot near Eaton, Colo., which can feed about 200,000 sheep and lambs when at full capacity, and stands as one of the largest feeding operations in the West — said that earlier in the year, the business ran out of corn silage for the first time ever.
That prompted the Harpers to aggressively search for corn supplies this fall. They now have the amount they need, but paid a “pretty penny” to get it.
“This year has been as challenging as any I can remember,” Harper said. “And we’re not expecting it to get much easier for a while.”
Similar stories were shared by other local ranchers, dairymen and feedyard operators.
At the same time, though, they say they’ll do whatever it takes to feed their livestock through the winter.
Those who are short on corn and in need of feed are bringing in hay from out of the country, and — as Five Rivers is doing now — are experimenting with beetle kill, or “pine fiber,” as a supplemental feed source.
They’re buying more distillers grains from ethanol plants for feed, and are purchasing the “unprecedented” amounts of baled corn stalk in northern Colorado.
They’re meeting routinely with animal nutritionists to find different diets that work with the limited feed that’s available, yet are still healthy for the animals.
Additionally, many say they’ve been forced to do business with feed suppliers they’ve never used before — in some cases, strangers from out of state. With that comes trust issues, they say, wondering if they’re getting the same quality they were from local growers who ran out of feed this year.
Because feed is in such short supply everywhere, it’s also very expensive, no matter what you’re buying, or where you’re buying it.
Alfalfa now ranges from about $250 to $300 per ton, maybe more, depending on how far it had to be shipped.
That’s nearly twice as much as it was going for less than two years ago.
Those high prices leave feed searchers spending more time at the office, looking high and low for what’s most affordable at a time when profit margins are tight — if they’re there at all.
Currently, demand is low for lamb meat, and therefore, prices are low.
With feed prices having skyrocketed in recent years and lamb prices having dropped, Harper said he’s now losing about 40 to 45 cents on every pound he puts on an animal.
Harper and others are just hoping that if they can weather the storm this winter and into the spring, it’ll be worth it in the end.
With the droughts of 2011 and 2012 having shrunk the U.S. cattle herd, Walter said cattle prices are likely to increase down the road.
In the meantime, he’ll keep meeting with his animal nutritionist to find the most affordable ways to nourish his cattle — and keep meeting with his pastor.
“I’ve certainly been praying a lot,” he said. “You have to have faith in times like these.” ❖