Eastern Colorado Drought Heavily Impacting Livestock

Western Ag Vignettes

Ranchers wondering if they should pull cattle from dry ranges.

Published on: June 26, 2013

Sad rangeland plant conditions are having a hard impact on eastern Colorado cattle grazing,  with vegetation all but gone in any areas.

In a recent visit to the area near Wray, I talked with cattlemen who believe it may be time to pull their cattle and take them to far-away greener pastures, or to the feedlot early. This second year of drought is also having a ripple impact, since overgrazing of pastures can lead to loss of some of the most important vegetation next season, researchers told me.

Most herds in the region have been reduced form their normal stocking sizes, and those  remaining spend a lot of time searching for their favorite plants.

It is good to see the Natural Resources Conservation Service so active in trying to help stressed ranchers decide what they should do. NRCS is also bringing in speakers for field meetings to advice on how to determine what their stocking levels should be under these conditions.

One of the big take-home messages is that drought isn't unusual for the area, and that ranchers who do not develop drought strategy management plans in eastern Colorado and other high plains locations are tempting fate.

A drought like this one occurs about every 35 year in the area, so ranchers who are too young to remember the last one are perhaps lured into thinking this is an isolated event.

Not so, the experts say, so a good drought management plan that is used even in the good rain years appears to be the tool of choice.

Feedlots in the region appear to be overflowing right now as many more cattle are coming into the facilities than is normal. But bringing younger-than-normal cattle into feeders now means a  higher cost to producers already taxed by drought expenses like the cost of getting water to  remaining herds.

As one who lives beside the wide Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, it is most difficult to think about those in Colorado who would love one of our good rainfalls. But moving the PNW weather to eastern Colorado isn't going to happen.

Colorado is a state of contrasts. To the east is the endless prairie where rainfall is sparse even in normal precipitation years, and to the west are the Rocky Mountains covered with white that is melting into local rivers and groundwater.

Such is the irony of many parts of the West where weather, climate and geography is a checkerboard of variation. As I travel across the eight states covered by Western Farmer-Stockman, I never fail to be amazed at this contrast in the 800,000 square mile territory I cover.

The differences in landscapes are reflected in the people I meet. Big dryland wheat farmers and wide prairie ranchers are a world apart from the berry farmers of Oregon's Willamette Valley, with the differences between them molded much by their regional weather, I believe.

I would like nothing better than to describe how they are different, but the words do not form to my satisfaction to describe their character. It is something you sense in their attitude and their outlook, which is different.

And that's what makes what I do so interesting.