Drought and its impact on our ranchers
by Penny Zeller
Good year or bad, it’s critical that our precious water resources are preserved and protected. “Ranchers, irrigators, and everyone, as much as possible (and not just in a dry year) need to consider how to use water better,” says Jerry Forster of the Sheridan County Conservation District in Sheridan, Wyo. He added that in a good year, there’s more water than needed, but people still need to conserve. A good way to conserve water is to make improvements to irrigation systems.
This can be accomplished by converting from flood to sprinkler systems to irrigate.
This is the second consecutive year of drought for Sheridan County. Although it is said that drought is a normal occurrence and happens on a cycle, the drought of 2001, and the possible continuing drought of 2002, has had serious consequences on Sheridan area ranchers. Many ranchers have had to sell their livestock and reduce the size of their herds.
Although the hay supply is down, reservoirs are down, and calf conception rates are down, the water supply is not quite as low as it was last year. Preliminary results indicate that the snow pack is “probably from 25-35 percent below normal snowpack,” says Jerry. However, Sheridan County picked up a few percentage points in the mountains with the last good rain/snowfall, and weather forecasters predict there is more moisture to come. This is good news because Sheridan County needs rain that is significantly over normal to restore normal moisture conditions. “May and June are normally our wettest months ” our drought conditions can be salvaged if we get enough moisture in May and June,” added Jerry.
Tom Byrd, the county executive director for the Farm Service Agency in Sheridan, helps ranchers in Sheridan and Johnson counties deal with the drought conditions.
Many ranchers have received help from the government for feed to get them through the winter.
There are many ranches in the area that Tom covers, and he estimates that between 500-600 informative newsletters are sent from his agency to operators of ranches and farms in this area. Tom notes that normally cattle are turned out around the first of May, but that was not the case this year because there was no leftover grass from 2001. Also, since it’s been a colder spring this year, what little grass there is hasn’t yet been able to grow. According to Tom, ranchers need 10 days to two weeks of warm weather and intense moisture. Sheridan County gets its irrigation and drinking water from the Big Horn Mountains and the moisture level is approximately 2 inches below normal.
Tom says the cool weather is a blessing in one way, because the moisture that has been received has not evaporated into the air.
Tom said that although this area is not known for a high amount of rainfall in a good year, looking back, 2001 was recognized as one of the worst drought years in history. If there is no more moisture, then a lot of ranchers will be out of business; some barely survived last year’s drought. Ranchers carry a large debt load and are fighting a weather pattern ” not a good combination.
Although it is green right now, the grass is very short.
No subsoil and topsoil moisture and nothing deep below the ground is the description of the current situation. According to Tom, it’s all in the timing ” the best rain for ranch land is in April, May, and June. If the area doesn’t receive water for grass land in those months, then it doesn’t do much good.
Even if a lot of moisture is received in July and August, that won’t help the ranchers. Tom commented that in past years, the west side of the county has received more precipitation and the east side less. But this past year, they were the same ” which is unusual. Tom thinks that with the latest moisture, 2002 is going to be a good year, despite last year’s drought. He noted that the recent rainfall is a “step in the right direction.”
Bill White, who owns a second-generation ranch in Ranchester, dealt with the 2001 drought by reducing his cattle herd size. Bill said of the recent precipitation, “It’s looking better ” we’re having a wetter spring.” He said the recent rain and snow showers have already made for a better start on the growth of grass. Of his ranch, Bill says it’s “enough to keep me busy!”
Liz Reynolds, who works a ranch five miles west of Sheridan with her father, Ben, knows how a drought can affect their operations. The Reynolds take in pasture cattle. Because of the drought in 2001, they had to ship their cattle out in August, about two months earlier than usual, because of lack of grass.
This year, when Ben takes in pasture cattle, he’ll either have to take in fewer cattle and hold them longer, or take in more cattle and ship them out sooner. Ben will make sure he doesn’t overstock. This will be his main method for handling the drought. His other method will be to install a sprinkler system. The Reynolds ranch, a beautiful 400 acre spread, has been in the family for over 40 years. Ben said that 2001 was the driest year he remembers.
Liz says that if the drought continues, ranchers will have to sell their livestock or start buying high-priced hay and have it shipped in from another state, since hay is so scarce in this region. She added that they will pay approximately $120/ton for hay when it’s shipped to them from out of state ” though it’s only worth about $60/ton. Because of the late winter, the Reynolds had to buy more hay than usual to carry them through the season.
The Reynolds are optimistic that moisture will come. Ben enjoys being a rancher and says his most famous quote when asked why he continues to be a rancher is, “those of us who are ranchers are ranchers because we can’t all be coal miners, lawyers, and coal methane workers!”