To the relief of local ranchers, much of Weld County will end February with twice its average amount of moisture for the month — thanks largely to this past week’s snowstorms.
Still, a lot more is needed, local producers say, to make up for the damage done by last year’s drought, and to produce the pasture and crops needed soon to feed their cattle and the newborn calves arriving on their ranches every day during this time of year.
March is known as one of Colorado’s snowiest months, and local producers are praying, they say, that next month lives up to its reputation.
“A few more of these, and we can get back to normal,” Kersey-area rancher Boyd Collins said, referring to the approximately one inch of precipitation that came with the deluge of snow this past week.
That moisture, alone, more than doubled the 0.45 inches of precipitation the Greeley area typically receives in all of February.
“Three, four, five inches (of precipitation) can do it for pastures. Hopefully we get it,” added Collins, joined at his ranch Wednesday morning by Dale Jackson, a neighboring rancher and president of the Weld County Livestock Association.
The two had spent the morning saving a newborn calf, receiving some assistance from Toma — Collins’ dog, which he estimates, while slightly laughing, can cover the workload of about nine men.
In addition to the recent snows, local ranchers, like Collins and Jackson, are grateful for today’s good cattle prices, expected to hit new record highs this year, with the U.S. herd is at its smallest since 1952.
But there’s still concerns for their cattle and their operations — mostly the weather.
Already, Collins has had to shrink the size of his herd because of drought, and he’ll have to further downsize, he says, if rains don’t come.
Prior to the 2002 drought, Collins’ ranch would produce about 125 head each year during the calving season, which stretches from winter into the spring.
As a result of that drought, Collins reduced his herd size, and it took him about five years to get back to where his ranch was calving more than 100 head each year.
This year — after once again reducing his herd size because of the 2012 drought — he’s only expecting about 75 calves.
Like Collins, many others have had to shrink their herds recently — troubling news to feedlots and beef packers, who have been swimming in red ink for several months, ag economists say, as a result of the tightened U.S. cattle herd.
The tight supply of cattle has increased competition for cattle and the prices feedlots are paying ranchers, while the drought also has increased their feed costs.
And because of the small herd, there’s less cattle going to slaughter at packing plants, with production not keeping up with operating costs.
This year, the situation led to the decision to close a Cargill packing plant in Texas that employs about 2,000 people.
“We know we need to expand the herd ... but, honestly, I just don’t know anyone who’s expanding this year,” Collins said.
According to new U.S. Department of Agriculture 10-year projections released this month, cattle numbers aren’t expected to reach pre-drought levels until 2017 or 2018.
“There’s still just too much uncertainty,” said Jackson, noting that on his ranch, he can typically grow enough crops on his own ground to feed his cattle, but last year, had to buy half of the feed he needed.
Boyd said he was able to grow enough feed on his own ground last year to get his cattle through this winter and the coming spring.
But without pasture grass this summer, he, too, will have to buy feed, which is in short supply because of the drought, and, like cattle, has hit historically high prices.
In addition to his own acreage, Boyd, like many other ranchers, has agreements with the government to put cattle on the Pawnee National Grasslands in Weld County to graze, usually from summer into the fall.
Boyd’s lease allows him to put up to 55 head on that ground, he said, but, because the 2012 drought depleted the grass, he was only able to put 20 head out there last year.
He expects that, if the drought persists, he’ll be restricted to have even less cattle on the Pawnee National Grasslands, if any at all. “It’s said a lot, but we just need moisture,” Boyd said. “It’s that simple.”