Dry conditions hit disaster stage

Pastures burning, hay crops suffering, some cattle go to market early


Local farmers and ranchers say they'd rather depend on the rain, not the government. But with rain in scarce supply here, local officials are asking for disaster relief from the federal government.

Valeen Jacobs of the U. S. Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency said Routt, Rio Blanco and Garfield counties are asking to be designated drought areas.

"Even if we are designated as a drought area, it would only put us in line for emergency loan programs," Jacobs said.

Jacobs hopes that local farm producers will see further relief in drought aid.

"In the past they've had livestock feed programs where producers get money for additional feeds or to buy additional pasturelands," Jacobs said.

The dry conditions here are forcing some ranchers to move cattle off of pastures early. It's also putting a dent in the hay market.

"Do you have a direct line to the rainmaker up there," local farmer Margaret Hogue laughed good-naturedly Monday. The Hogue family has a farm six miles west of Steamboat. Hogue and others are having much the same problem: poor hay crops and dry pastures. She hopes to get a little wheat out of her fields.

"We're waiting it out, hoping for the best," Hogue said.

It's too late for the Updike family northwest of Craig. "I'm sending cattle out tomorrow," Gene Updike said Monday.

"I'm out of pasture. It's dry. It's burned up and gone," Updike said.

His hay yield went from 300 tons to 83 tons, making it even more difficult to feed his cattle.

"I'm shipping about 3/4 of my herd," Updike said. "Hay is too high to buy to feed them."

Hay is the No. 2 crop in Routt County after cattle.

"Some hay isn't even worth cutting," said C. J. Mucklow, Routt County director of the CSU Cooperative Extension Service.

What's interesting Mucklow said is that there was much less rain in 1994 for the months of May, June and July, but nobody was complaining.

"It's not just the precipitation," he said. "We haven't factored in the temperature and wind yet." Mucklow believes those two factors must be contributing to the dry conditions this year.

According to statistics, this May-July period has been the 10th-driest since 1919.

The CSU Climate Center said that the high temperatures for May-July are quite a bit higher than the 30-year norm. (see accompanying chart on this page)

"We're definitely seeing the livestock leave the county earlier than usual," Mucklow said. "There's not as much foilage."

But if much of the western United States is having drought problems, where are the cattle going?

"Some are going to the feedlot earlier," Mucklow said.

Fortunately beef prices are still high so it won't hit ranchers too hard Mucklow said.

But rancher Gene Updike isn't so optimistic.

"They're going down daily," he said. "I got the market report and they will be down again this week."

As for those farmers actually selling hay this season there is some good news.

Premium hay is selling for $125-$145 a ton. That compares with $100 a ton last year. Cow hay or poorer quality hay, is selling for $80-$100 a ton compared to $60-$70 a ton last year.

Fortunately for the Hogue family they planted alfalfa last year, and this year they planted oats.

"We'll be able to feed our cattle," said Mike Hogue. "I know there's other folks needing to ship cattle already."


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