Rancher Mary Murphy sits on a four-wheeler on her ranch west of Hayden. Murphy is plenty tough enough to tackle the rugged chores that must be done on a ranch but also shows a maternal touch while checking on the newborns.

Photo by John F. Russell

Rancher Mary Murphy sits on a four-wheeler on her ranch west of Hayden. Murphy is plenty tough enough to tackle the rugged chores that must be done on a ranch but also shows a maternal touch while checking on the newborns.

Testing the waters: Routt County cattle ranching dealing with struggles in continued drought

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Ranching reality

Cow/calf ranching

The typical cow/calf business model for ranchers involves maintaining a permanent herd of mother cows and grazing pairs of cows and their calves of the year on pasture throughout the summer. The pasture might be on their own land, on public lands under grazing leases or on rented pasture.

Most of the calves, particularly the males, are sold in the fall at weights of 400 to 600 pounds.

Male calves, most often born in March or April, are neutered at branding time to become steers. A select number of second-year heifers are bred along with the established cows after calves of the year are weaned in summer.

Beef cattle typically consume 2.5 percent of their body weight in forage daily. But hay stocks on farms and ranches in Colorado are at the lowest since 2002, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Colorado office.

Tough love when twins are born

When a mother beef cow delivers twins, it’s a bonus for the rancher. If they are trying to build their herd from within, a young female calf represents the promise of growing the herd by one with her own baby in her second summer. And with the prices for weaned calves at an all-time high, a male calf represents money in hand when it sells for as much as $1,000 this year at 7 months old.

But twins also represent a challenge. Ranchers know that if the mother cow must provide milk for two rapidly growing youngsters, neither will put on weight as quickly as they would without their sibling.

The answer to that conundrum is adoption. Inevitably, some newborn calves die each year on the ranch. The challenge is convincing one of the mothers without a surviving calf of their own to accept one of the twins.

Rancher Mary Murphy swears by the traditional calf adoption method, but the description of how it’s done is a little gruesome. Murphy, who displays a tender, almost maternal touch with her newborns, said that when a newborn calf dies in the pasture, it’s very important to take it by its hind legs and drag it away from the mother. Doing that prompts the bereft cow to follow after. In so doing, the mother cow bonds with the smell of her calf.

Once that is accomplished, the calf is taken out of the mother’s sight and skinned. Murphy takes the raw side of the little hide and scuffs it in the dirt to dry the blood and then drapes it over the twin intended for an adoptive mother. The presence of her own calf’s hide can persuade the mother cow to accept and nurture a new calf that isn’t her own.

That’s just part of life on a cow/calf ranch.

— Newborn calves are testing their legs and romping in the pastures near Steamboat Springs this month. And to passing motorists, it looks idyllic from the highway. What people can’t see from their automobiles, and many of the rest of us don’t appreciate, are the late nights ranch families spend assisting their cows with difficult births. They haven’t experienced the early mornings when ranchers bring struggling calves into their kitchens to warm them and keep them alive.

This spring, perhaps more than any other, the ranchers who care for the calves and depend upon them for their incomes are faced with a particularly difficult set of choices.

Ranchers and farmers on Colorado’s Western Slope are confronted with the likelihood of a second straight season of extreme drought. And if their hay fields aren’t more productive this summer than last, they might be forced to sell some of their mother cows to avoid paying more than twice what they are accustomed to — more than $300 per ton — to import hay from as far away as Canada.

The newborn Black and Red Angus calves in the meadows just now greening up from the headwaters of the Yampa River in South Routt to the Elk River Valley near Clark, represent not just new life, but also the land-use practices that have shaped the landscape of these valleys since the early 20th century. Ranching is more than a job; it’s a lifestyle being passed down from generation to generation. And the reality, rancher and Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger said, is that a majority of ranch families include a member who is employed off the ranch to augment income and secure health benefits.

Testing resolve

CJ Mucklow, the western region manager for the Colorado State University Extension, said a second summer of drought could have lasting impacts on the cattle business in western Colorado, particularly for those ranches whose business model involves maintaining a permanent herd of mother cows and selling their weaned calves in autumn.

“If the drought continues a second year, it will be a real detriment to the cow/calf industry,” Mucklow said. “We can’t afford to pay these prices for a ton of hay, $200 to $400 a ton. If we have to depopulate the herds, it will take you years to build them back.”

And when the time finally comes to rebuild cattle herds, the necessary young females called heifers will be only more expensive because of increasing demand.

Professor Steve Koontz, an agricultural economist with CSU, said the best choice for ranchers across the American West might be to move on from the familiar cow/calf business model.

“Where the environment and the market is sitting right now, this is really the worst-case scenario for western cow/calf producers,” Koontz said. “It’s going to be very tough to go through and come out on the other side.”

This is no time to borrow money to feed $300 hay to cows, Koontz said. Betting that current high prices for weaned calves will hold up until September or October could be a losing proposition. Instead, he sees cow/calf operators making a transition to raising hay for livestock producers in other regions of the country while running a few head of yearling steers when the climate affords them that opportunity.

“The money maker (in the western U.S.), easily for the last 10 years, has been forage production,” Koontz said. “It’s a tough message to deliver, but I know producers who have done that — sold cows and substantially reduced the numbers of calves. If you’re going to hold your breath on calf prices, we’re all going to be blue before this is all over.”

Wayne Shoemaker — who together with his wife, Sonja, manages the Bar A Ranch near Toponas — pointed out that the cow/calf business model is “pretty traditional for this part of the world.” A past president of the Routt County Cattlemen’s Association, he said the long winters of Routt County mean that cows must be fed hay all winter. That isn’t the case in milder parts of the country, giving those farmers and ranchers a competitive advantage.

“Up here, you have to feed them everything they eat (grazing is not an option during winter) and feed is expensive. Given the high cost of inputs, a lot of people just don’t want to do it anymore,” Shoemaker acknowledged.

Still, he was in the thick of calving at his ranch on the edge of the Flat Tops this month.

What makes it particularly difficult right now for ranchers to give up on calf production is that the drought has resulted in some of the highest prices livestock growers have ever seen for the beef cattle, at the same time, the cost of feeding their animals through the long Rocky Mountain winters is giving them doubts.

Since the good old days in 2010, when livestock producers were celebrating prices of $1.25 per pound offered for weaned calves at auction, prices have gone up further. A calf today might sell for $1.85 per pound (feedlot managers would say $185 per hundred weight) making the 550-pound animal worth $1,017.

But then there is the persistent drought.

Shoemaker said that despite the high prices for weaned calves and yearling steers run on the ranch, he’s not convinced the sales won’t be offset by higher costs.

“We’re seeing some good prices compared to what they were five or six years ago, but we’re also facing huge increase in production costs,” he said. “At the end of the day, I don’t know if these prices will cover our costs: tires, fuel, gas, fertilizer. It’s inflation. You name it, it’s up there.”

The Shoemakers have a natural beef business of their own: Yampa Valley Beef. They purchase steers from their ranch owners and finish them on grass or grain, but the cattle that gain weight on grain do so on the Bar A before being processed locally.

In addition to the cow/calf operation, the Bar A’s bottom line depends on its sale of high-quality horse hay to customers on the Front Range as well as subleasing pastures on public lands for which the ranch holds leases to other ranchers.

Those revenue streams have been significantly impacted by the drought, Shoemaker said. The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management already have sent letters to leaseholders alerting them that this summer they won’t be allowed to graze as many cattle for as long as they have in the past. It’s a step the federal agencies are taking to protect the long-term health of the range, which already has been hammered by one season of extreme drought.

“This year, we’re not going to take any outside cattle at all,” Shoemaker said.

From flood to drought

Monger said ranching conditions changed dramatically in autumn 2011 and the adversity only built throughout 2012. 2011 saw flooding on the Elk and Yampa rivers during spring runoff, but all of that moisture produced an abundant hay crop. Ranchers had no way to know what lay ahead.

“We went through (summer) 2011 and everybody was doing great,” Monger said. “We had surplus hay, and we were selling it in Texas and New Mexico. Fast forward to 2012, and it turned out horrendously bad. We had no snow on the ground in the fall of 2011, and the surface of the hay meadows froze. What little snow we had that winter didn’t percolate into the ground when it ran off. Calving season was good because of the lack of moisture, but we didn’t have any rain to help with the spring grasses nearly until June.”

Dry-land hay withered, and the rivers sank to their lowest flows since 2002. The scarcity of precipitation and high demand produced poor hay yields.

So as they watch their hay meadows dry out unusually early again this spring, they must decide, “Should I sell some of my cows now while prices remain strong, or should I take a calculated risk and bet that I’ll be able to purchase enough extra hay to maintain or even increase the number of mother cows I feed?”

Some Northwest Colorado ranchers were shipping cattle by June last summer, Monger said. Some cow/calf pairs went to states like Arkansas before prices hit a midsummer swoon, Monger said. But he and other ranchers had different plans.

Hope springs eternal

Rancher Mary Murphy, who looks after 300 mother cows in the rolling hills between Hayden and Craig, made it through last summer’s drought by feeding her livestock high-quality hay that she typically would be able to sell for additional cash flow in a season of abundant water.

Murphy — clad in a long-sleeved camouflage shirt and with hair secured in short, blonde braids — is a rarity. There are many women ranchers in Northwest Colorado, but few who are the primary ranch operator. Her 21-year-old son, Murphy Smart, and another young man, Erik Sundberg, 22, who has worked on the ranch since he was 14, are her only hands.

Murphy is plenty tough enough to tackle the rugged chores that must be done on a ranch but also shows a maternal touch while checking on the newborns from the saddle of an all-terrain vehicle.

Pausing during her regular rounds to check on the mothers and their newborns, Murphy stoops to encourage a twin calf to its feet.

“Come on, little one,” she cooed, just as though she were talking to a human baby.

But Murphy knows the day will come when she must separate the twins and graft one of them onto a cow who has lost her calf to ensure maximum weight gain for both calves.

“I feel bad thinking about splitting because I know how much they love each other,” she said.

Not only do the cows seem to know and trust Murphy, she knows all about them and even their ancestors.

“I can look at any of these cows and tell you what their grandmothers did,” Murphy said. That is to say, she knows their record of producing strong calves year in and year out that were able to gain weight quickly. She also knows if they had a natural tendency to be good mothers.

Murphy — and her late father, Lawrence Murphy, before her — has devoted significant acres of the ranch to wildlife habitat, and large numbers of deer and elk roam the hills along with a modest number of pronghorns. And the Murphys have participated in Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Ranching for Wildlife program, which expands the opportunity to host private hunting on the ranch. For the first time last year, it was necessary to graze cattle on the wildlife habitat, and deer hunting was suspended to avoid further stressing the wildlife.

“We’ve been able to keep our cows at the expense of our wildlife and our hay income,” Murphy said.

East for the winter

Doug Carlson, who raises Red Angus cattle along the Elk River near Clark, isn’t contemplating reducing his herd. Instead, he’s planning to add cows. His adult son, Danny, is becoming more involved in ranch operations, and with enough water, hay production and pasture to support more than his current 230 cows in a normal year, he is intent on building his herd from within.

Instead of selling cattle in the midst of the drought of 2012, Carlson came up with what he described as a creative swap.

“I sent my bred cows to Imperial, Neb., for the winter where there was an opportunity for them to graze on cornstalks,” Carlson said. “It was the first time we’ve had to do that in 30 years. It was a gamble.”

The risk was that the cornstalks left after last fall’s harvest could have been covered in snow by a blizzard sweeping the plains. If that had happened, he would have been forced to buy more expensive hay for his cattle anyway. But the strategy appears to have succeeded.

It began when a neighbor ordered a semitrailer load of hay from Canada for a large herd of horses. Horses require higher-quality feed than do cows, and this load was a mix of grass hay and alfalfa that already was a year old. When it arrived, it wasn’t what the buyer had hoped for. So Carlson stepped in and purchased the hay for well below the current going rate of $300 per ton for good hay.

At the same time, Carlson knew he was going to produce some outstanding hay from two key meadows along the Elk River. Reserving the Canadian hay for autumn 2012 and spring 2013, Carlson sold his own hay and broke even on the trip to Nebraska, where his mother cows dined relatively inexpensively on cornstalks through the winter.

Breaking even in this case was a big win. It meant he wouldn’t have to ship any of his cows.

“It saved me from have to ship one or two truckloads of cows,” Carlson said.

Instead of reducing his herd by 80 cows, he also was able to keep the replacement heifers he’s counting on to build his herd two years in the future.

The pregnant cows returned to their home ranch on about March 14, appearing to be in fine condition, and that’s important. Their overall condition will determine whether they are ready to breed later this season and whether their pregnancies take.

Researchers at Montana State University report that the biggest factor in the profitability of a cow/calf operation is the cost of feed, representing about 60 percent of the annual cost of maintaining a cow. But profitability also is directly related to the reproductive rate of the herd.

In that area, MSU reports that keeping a cow in good body condition at the time of calving plays a major role in the overall reproductive rate. Cows that are in good condition when they deliver newborns in the spring are much more likely to re-breed within 90 days and deliver a calf the next year.

Stewards of the land

Farmers and ranchers are stewards of the land as well as food producers, and the ongoing pattern of summer grazing on public lands and irrigation of grass hay meadows feeding cattle through the long winters have shaped the verdant landscape Routt County residents cherish. And everyone who pays property taxes in Routt County has a financial stake in the future of agriculture here through its voter-approved purchase of development rights program.

Since 1996, the county has collected 1.5 mills of property tax, which is used to leverage the purchase of development rights, with the participation of the owners, away from farms and ranches in order to help ensure those historic land-use practices remain in place.

According to Routt County records, 33,620 acres have been conserved with the help of a public investment of $17.7 million. Because the landowners, typically farmers and ranchers, donate a large portion of the appraised value of the land toward the assessment in exchange for tax benefits and working capital, the public cost to conserve those lands has averaged $526 per acre.

Longtime purchase of development rights board member Allan White has been so taken with the role cattle ranching plays in the Western landscape, he now cares for nine head of Scottish Highland cattle on his rural property.

“It just makes sense. It’s what’s best for the land,” White said. “I remember CJ Mucklow explaining that cattle ranching is a system that is totally self-sustaining. Because the cattle have split hooves, they work the ground. Just by cattle grazing a piece of land, it’s healthier. The whole cycle keeps the land healthy, and you end up with a product.”

The future path that farming and ranching will follow in the Yampa Valley might be uncertain, but there’s no doubt about the tenacity of its practitioners. ■

Hay/Alfalfa prices in Colorado

Comments

Scott Wedel 1 year, 3 months ago

This year is not comparable to last year. This year is much closer to average. It is certainly not an extreme drought. Last year at this time we were well into runoff and rivers were going to be low in early June.

This year we are still accumulating snow and are reasonably close to snow storage average. Buff Pass is below average and Crosho is above average. Sure, Buff Pass is short more water than Chrosho has extra, but last at this time all the snow had already melted at Crosho and the snow pack at Buff Pass was melting and had warmed up (to 32 deg according to Tower's measurements) while this year at Buff Pass the snow -s still -4 deg and not melting yet.

Ranching is still a very tough business, but this year is simply not an extreme drought. A month ago that was a real concern, but the last month has been wet and cool to take us out of extreme drought and pushed us to close to average.

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rhys jones 1 year, 3 months ago

I've got to agree with Scott on this one. This has all appearances of being a more-or-less normal year -- the lakes and rivers are full, (I think; I don't get out much) there is a healthy snowpack yet to come down, and the storms just keep rolling through.

I had the pleasure of working on a large ranch north of Hayden one summer, '05 I think it was, and it turned into a bumper year for hay; we rolled up 400 tons when par was half that. Rain often delayed operations even afterward; you don't want to roll that stuff up wet. It was a fine mix of Timothy grass and alfalfa, excellent hay. We were selling it, not buying it.

This year could be every bit as good as that one, no indication yet it won't.

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jerry carlton 1 year, 3 months ago

Rhys On other post, I forgot to say it was 102 today. Cooling off now down to 96.

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mark hartless 1 year, 3 months ago

The little lakes and creeks might be full but the ones that count (from colorado to lake powell) are way down and this years snowpac isn't going to pump them up much.

I'd also bet that the Elk river watershed is not in quite as good condition as the Yampa, and that will affect many local ranches.

Certainly has improved in the last 3 weeks though.

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John Weibel 1 year, 3 months ago

It was looking better than last year 3 weeks ago. If it warms up and rains a little bit in May June, it will be fine. Cattle prices have been terrible for bred cows recently and with the recent weather here and elsewhere, that could change. There could be a large run up in prices as the national cow herd is at its lowest level since the 50's.

Putting 6 months of hay (3 tons or more) into a cow that will yield a $1,000 calf does not make much sense. Cows migrating to other regions for the winter makes far more sense as Doug Carlson did this winter. Similar to what the deer and elk have done for centuries.

Yep, inputs are getting more expensive, though by having a legume in your pasture, you do not require the fertilizer. Personally the way to make it work best, is to layer the agricultural operation, so that chickens follow cows which are rotated through pastures being moved multiple times per day (new timed gates open every couple of hours on some ranches these days) - though it takes a lot of infrastructure to be put in place so that water is well distributed for the livestock - to achieve that goal.

With the settlement of the region cows were moved more akin to wildlife, being herded by shepherds/drovers. Then came the barbed wire fence which allowed the livestock to be turned out for continuous grazing, not closely replicating how the natural system evolved and damaging to the environment. Today, we have ATVs and electric fence and electronic gates, which allow us to move livestock more frequently as the system does not take as long to build as a permanent fence - trying to mimic the natural world tends to build the topsoil.

All business models evolve over time. Agricultures only difference, is that it is subject to natures whims also. Technology and a greater understanding of how the system works, is allowing for farmers and ranchers to move away from old paradigms towards more sustainable agriculture.

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