Less water means fewer cows in Routt County

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Learn more about managing livestock in a drought. Visit http://rcextension.colostate.edu/ and click on “Drought Resources.”

— For Routt County livestock producers, the question might not be whether they will reduce their herds this summer but how soon they take action.

More than 100 people crowded into the Commissioners Hearing Room at the Routt County Courthouse on Wednesday night to listen to a panel of experts present their options. All of the farmers and ranchers in the room already knew the valley is in the grip of what could be the worst drought of their lives. But that wasn’t all.

“I’m the bearer of more bad news,” Routt County Extension Agent Todd Hagenbuch told attendees. “Even if you think you’ve got the best cows in the valley, your cows are not special. If you get rid of your cows, it’s not the end of the world. You can replace those cows with your own heifers.”

The challenge facing livestock producers this season is the growing certainty that they won’t have adequate pasture to provide the nutrition their cows and calves need this summer, and even if they did, getting water to the livestock will become increasingly problematic. And even if they mow hay in dried-up sloughs they usually wouldn’t touch, their harvest this summer won’t be enough to carry them through the winter.

The logical choice, Hagenbuch said, is to wean calves from their mothers’ milk earlier than usual this summer, sell the cows and steer calves and keep selected heifers to rebuild the herd next year from the genetic stock ranchers have worked for years to develop.

“We think we have to wean 500-pound calves” in September, Hagenbuch said. “But you can wean them early. Lactating cows only require more feed and more water.”

The Routt County Extension Service and the Community Agricultural Alliance hosted Tuesday’s meeting.

Jim Ogle, of Superior Livestock, whose company is hosting video cattle auctions at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort this week, had a mix of good and bad news for those in attendance.

He gave credence to Hagenbuch’s thesis when he said some 250- to 300-pound calves sold at auction this week for as much as $930 per head. That would be a relative fortune considering they were sold early, saving their owners precious feed costs.

Hagenbuch said later, after checking last week’s prices at Centennial Auction in Fort Collins, that a group of 258-pound calves sold for $550 each, and more mature 420-pound calves sold for $814, a profitable proposition for beef animals that weren’t carried through the summer.

Routt County ranchers already have begun reducing their herds.

Brand inspector Darren Clever said he inspected trucks Tuesday loaded with 400 yearlings.

Erik Taylor, a range management specialist with the Hahn’s Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service, said he agreed that with the public range drying up and vegetation suffering, culling low performing and open (unbred) cows early is a good option. He said he has talked to sheep ranchers who are monitoring the condition of lambs closely, and as soon as they show signs of declining, they are being shipped.

Taylor said grazing permit holders in the area already understand what they are up against.

“Many permittees saw this thing coming and have already made adjustments in the number of livestock they plan to run on the forest,” Taylor said. “Typically, they go on from the first of July to the end of September. The way things are looking right now, if we don’t get a break out of this weather cycle, we might not last three weeks out there.”

Drought-stricken ranges must be managed to promote root replacement or the condition of the vegetation could suffer even more in summer 2013, he added.

Josh Voorhis, Taylor’s counterpart in the Yampa Ranger District, said he’s relying on his 26 permittees spread over 38 grazing allotments to make good decision and protect the range for future years.

“I rode through a sheep allotment at the base of Dunckley Pass today and one in four stock ponds held water,” Voorhis said. “A couple of the creeks were essentially dry. The aspen forage is there, especially in shady areas, but the water isn’t there. Hauling water on the forest isn’t very practical.”

There may be help for livestock growers on the way from the federal government.

Jennifer Blair, of the Farm Service Agency office in Steamboat Springs, said Gov. John Hickenlooper had endorsed all of the drought disaster requests that have been sent to the Secretary of Agriculture. And a request to allow ag lands set aside under the conservation reserve program to be opened up to grazing and haying is in the works.

The emergency conservation program may provide funding to offset expenses for water hauling, Blair said, but careful record keeping is a must.

“Make sure you are keeping receipts,” Blair said. “If you buy stock tanks you wouldn’t normally have needed, make sure you have those receipts signed and dated so you have good documentation.”

Finally, Sean Durham, an accountant with THPK CPA who also ranches with his father south of Craig, said ranchers who reduce their herds have options to defer the extra income associated with the sell-down to 2013.

For example, a rancher who usually sells 350 calves each year but elects to sell 500 this year could allocate the extra 150 to 2013 taxes. There are similar provisions for selling breeding stock and cow/calf pairs.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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