Routt County ranchers thin herds in response to drought
6-county region applies for federal disaster relief
June 22, 2012
Steamboat Springs — With the drought deepening in Northwest Colorado, some livestock producers in Routt County already are beginning to sell off cattle they worry they won't be able to feed through the summer.
Routt County Extension Agent Todd Hagenbuch said Friday that he heard indirectly from cattle brokers and the brand inspector that several ranches here have sold substantial numbers of cattle and that the same thing is happening in Moffat County.
"They won't be alone," Hagenbuch said. "It doesn't matter if you have 10 cows or 1,000 cows, you're going to be impacted this year."
Valeen Jacobs, executive director of the federal Farm Service Agency for six counties including Routt and Moffat, confirmed Friday that a request for disaster relief has been sent to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
"We are seeking a secretarial disaster designation that was approved in emergency board meetings in all of these counties," Jacobs said.
Other counties in her territory include Rio Blanco, Grand, Jackson and Summit.
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If approved, the disaster designation could bring support to farmers and ranchers in the form of deferred tax obligations and federal cost-sharing for hauling water to livestock and water livestock development. A special request on behalf of Routt and Moffat counties could allow for emergency haying and grazing on acreage already set aside from production under a federal conservation program.
The situation is just as tough for hay growers who are calculating whether it is worth the cost of the diesel fuel they would burn to mow, rake and bale their crop to put up dryland hay. And the growth of irrigated hay, parched by frequent periods of gusting winds, is already behind the curve.
Longtime rancher Jim Stanko said he just noticed several inches of growth in his grass hay this week.
"I started putting water on my hay clear back into May," Stanko said. "Normally I'd just be in my second week of irrigating now. We put the water on even though the ground was cold and the water was cold. The theory was to get the ground soaked. But the wind took care of that. This wind has been probably more of a killer than the heat, to tell you the truth."
Hagenbuch said local livestock producers are already up against it in terms of finding sufficient feed and water for their cattle, and there is an urgent need to begin making decisions. For some, that will mean thinning their herds.
"One option is to sell cattle," Hagenbuch said. "The problem is, this is widespread enough it will be difficult for us to find markets for some of these cattle. They'll find homes somewhere, I just don't know where that will be and what price they will bring. They need to make a dramatic decision really quickly, because we'll be out of grass to feed these cattle."
In an effort to give hay growers and livestock producers the tools they need to arrive at important decisions quickly, the Routt County Extension Office and the Community Agriculture Alliance are convening a panel of experts Wednesday at the Routt County Courthouse to explain the situation and the available options.
Stock ponds go dry
Attention has been focused on dwindling streamflows in the wake of a bad snow year and the scarcity of June precipitation (one-tenth of an inch in Steamboat Springs to date), but Marsha Daughenbaugh, of the Community Ag Alliance, said the stock ponds that are drying up across the rangelands of Northwest Colorado are at least as big a problem.
Ranchers develop stock watering ponds that catch snowmelt or water from springs on low-elevation pasture to allow cattle to get to water without having to walk too far, Daughenbaugh said. Those ponds already are drying up in early summer and the condition of the grass is already poor.
Some livestock producers already are hauling water, in some cases from wells on their ranch headquarters and in other cases out of rivers where they have instream flow rights, to keep their animals alive, she added.
Hagenbuch said livestock producers will receive more grim news Wednesday when rangeland managers from the Yampa and Hahn's Peak ranger districts of the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest tell them that their grazing leases on public lands will be shut down early this year because the range is in such poor condition.
"They work well with our (livestock) producers, but their real obligation is to health of the forest," Hagenbuch said. "When the resource is gone the cows are gone. It doesn't matter what the dates on your permit say."
As if that weren't enough, Hagenbuch said plans also are being studied to determine how farmers and ranchers might best move their machinery and livestock out of harm's way if a wildfire sweeps down from the hills onto their fields and pastures.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com