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Bracing for drought

Cliff Thompson

But for ranchers who dominate the agricultural community here and for agriculture workers across the drought-impacted Western region, it’s a far more serious situation. They’re bracing for what could be a shakeout year.

For ranchers, who operate in an economic environment where profit is razor-thin, it will be the make-or-break year. Four years of less-than-average precipitation has developed into a drought that has hiked the cost of feed because it has reduced what is naturally available, driving up demand and price.

While agriculture is no longer king in Eagle County, agricultural products measured by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis show the industry still generates between $7 million and $8 million annually. In the early history of the county farming and ranching were far more common. Real estate development and ever-more expensive land has gobbled up many ranches. The former sheep pasture along Gore Creek now hosts millions of tourists as the site of Vail Village at the base of Vail Mountain.



Threat

In Burns Hole, in the northwestern part of the county, the situation is far from inconveniencing. It’s threatening ranchers’ livelihoods.



“It certainly is having an impact on us,” said Vern Albertson, 66, a third- generation Burns rancher and the incoming president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “We don’t have the pasture or the water.”

Albertson said some of the natural springs he has depended upon in the past have already stopped running this year.

“I haven’t known “em ever to be dry,” he said. “You can’t starve profit into a cow.”



Fellow-Burns rancher Ben Wurtsmith, 72, who has a grazing permit on Derby Creek for up to 369 cows, resorted to superlatives to describe conditions.

“This is the worst,” he said. “It’s kind of a disastrous year.”

Wurtsmith remains hopeful, however, that summer rains will come.

“If we would just get one rain right now,” he said, “we could be in good shape.”

Lifelong county resident Bruce Eaton, 63, who runs one of the last ranching operations in the area, is anticipating a dry year, too. But he’s a little more resigned.

“What are you going to do about it?” he asked. “If the monsoons are here, we’ll be in the money. Regardless of what happens, we’ll live through it.”

Future uncertain

Perhaps the most troubling part of the situation is the uncertainty drought brings to the already uncertain business of raising livestock and crops.

Last week the 112 grazing permitees on the 2.3-million acre White River National Forest spanning Eagle and seven other counties, received notice of a meeting to discuss how the drought may impact their grazing permits.

The forest allows up to 23,000 cattle and 51,000 sheep to graze each year. That’s about 13 percent of the 171,000 cattle and 26 percent of the 192,000 sheep that graze the state’s national forests and grasslands.

The Forest Service will be evaluating each grazing permit on an individual basis because of the variety of terrain involved. Allotments at higher altitude are still greening up while those at lower are drying.

“Mother Nature dealt us a really dry winter,” said Wayne Nelson, forest range manager for the White River National Forest. “A lot of the forage is made by spring rains, and we haven’t gotten those either.”

Nelson said usually cattle will be brought to the hills in June and sheep, which graze at higher altitude, usually hit the hills in July. How long and where they will graze is the question for land managers. Grazing permitees pay $1.43 per animal unit month. It’s a rate set by Congress.

For Albertson, however, the deepening drought will make it tougher to operate. Last winter he was unable to send cattle to his desert grazing allotment because there was no forage available. He had to feed those cows instead of letting them graze.

He said he thinks a number of ranchers may be forced to sell their stock to limit their losses.

“Nothing you can do except laugh’

But Eagle County and its streamflows, which are 43 percent below normal, is in relatively good shape compared to other areas in the region.

Southern Colorado rancher Owen Scherzer, 50, who ranches on 1,200 acres just east of Del Norte along the nearly dry Rio Grande, sold half his herd last week.

For Scherzer, a former student of agriculture at Colorado State University and a and father of three sons, it was a bitter economic reality. For 25 years he had worked the genetic lines of his stock to create a profitable, productive herd. Now he has to part with them for depressed sale prices because there is a glut of stock on the market.

“Somebody is going to get a darned good herd of cows,” he said. “Each animal had been hand-selected.”

Scherzer also works as a livestock breeder for American Breeding Service. That business is down, too.

Scherzer said there are real fears the Rio Grande, which is diverted extensively for irrigation, may not be running at all at the height of summer. The snowpack feeding the river is at a mind-boggling 6 percent of normal. The last measurable precipitation, besides trace rains and snows, was dry snowstorm worth only a couple of inches in early March.

One of his sources of water for irrigation is San Francisco Creek, which normally flows at 7 to 8 cubic feet per second, of cfs, in spring. This year it’s running at a comparably diminutive 1.2 cfs. Hay and alfalfa fields suffering the effects of successive dry winters take two irrigations before they begin to green up, he said.

One of the wells Scherzer uses for irrigation can only be run for eight hours before it begins to surge from lack of water and has to be shut down.

“There’s nothing you can do except laugh,” he said. “Though inside we’re crying.”

Other streams springing from the Continental Divide of southwestern Colorado’s San Juan mountains, such as the Dolores and San Juan, are also mere trickles.

If the drought worsens, Scherzer says, he will see something new growing on his land, something he has long resisted – a housing subdivision.

He may not be alone, either, estimating 40 percent of the cattle in the huge San Luis Valley – which is irrigated by a substantial aquifer fed by the Rio Grande, as well as the river itself –may be sold this summer. The huge vegetable and grain crop in that valley, watered by huge center-pivot irrigations systems, also is in jeopardy as ground water levels drop beyond the reach of irrigation wells. Whether those ranches and farms survive now is left to the vagaries of the weather – which so far has been uncooperative.

Expensive grass

The cost of feed has now become the central question for many ranchers, who have little forage on their pastures and little water with which to grow it, said Terry Sankhouser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

“Hay supplies are low and any hay harvested this summer will be expensive,” he said.

Alfalfa and natural grass hay is selling from $75 to $120 per ton, Sankhouser said.

“Some have begun to sell their cattle,” he said. “I expect you will see that trend continue throughout the summer.”

The situation has prompted Colorado Governor Bill Owens to have the state declared a drought area eligible for federal emergency relief funds. He has also created the Colorado Drought Task Force to review the situation.

The Cattlemen’s Association is taking an active hand and is seeking to have a release of Conservation Reserve Ground restrictions. Farmers are paid to hold that land out of production. If it is able to be used it could provide some badly needed land for grazing, he said.

The Forest Service’s Nelson retains the optimism of the ranchers he works with.

“We still have some opportunity if the summer monsoons come in the first week of July,” Nelson said. “We can still have a fair amount of recovery.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is calling for normal summer precipitation this year, with possibly heavier precipitation if the developing El Nino in the tropical Pacific strengthens.

Scherzer has a cynically wry and aridly humorous prediction for the Eagle County’s ski industry-dependant economy, based on his years ranching. He said no hay for feed this year and on into the winter, when it is most needed, will translate into a heavy snow year.

“Plan on a super ski year,” he said. “If there’s no hay you can count on lots of snow.”


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