STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colorado (AP) – With his ranch threatened by a worsening drought, Jim Stanko is not encouraged by the coming storm signaled by the sound of thunder.
“Thunder means lightning, and lightning can cause fires,” said Stanko, who fears he will have to sell half of his herd of about 90 cows in Routt County outside of Steamboat Springs if he cannot harvest enough hay to feed them.
As drought worsens in the West and marks the start of a fire season, cattle ranchers are among those feeling the pain. Their hay yields are declining, leading some to make the difficult decision to sell animals. To avoid the high cost of feed, many pastoralists grow hay to feed their herds during the winter when snow covers the grass they normally graze.
But this year, Stanko’s hay crop so far is even worse than last year. One field produced just 10 bales, up from 30 last year, amid heat waves and historically low water levels in the Yampa River, its irrigation source.
Some breeders don’t wait to reduce the number of mouths they have to feed.
At the Loma cattle auction in western Colorado, sales were lively earlier this month, though peak season is usually not until fall, when most calves are ready. to be sold. Pastoralists eager to unload cattle are fueling the action while prices are still high.
âEveryone’s going to sell their cows, so it’s probably smarter to do it now while the price is up before the market floods,â said Buzz Bates, a rancher from Moab, Utah, who sold 209 cow-calf pairs, or about 30% of his herd.
Bates decided to prune his herd after a fire started by an abandoned campfire destroyed part of his pasture, limiting his ability to feed them.
The weather has long taken into account how ranchers manage their livestock and land, but those choices have increasingly focused on how herds can cope with drought conditions, said Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of natural resources to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
âIf it rained four inches, there would be no cow to sell for five months,â said George Raftopoulos, owner of the auction house.
Raftopoulos says he encourages people to think twice before parting with their cows. Having to replace them later could cost more than paying for extra hay, he said.
Culling herds can be a big blow to cattle ranchers. This often means parting with cows bred for genetic traits that are optimal for breeding and viewed as long-term investments that pay dividends.
Jo Stanko, Jim’s wife and business partner, noted that her cows were bred for their ability to handle the region’s temperature variations.
âWe live in a very specialized place,â she said. âWe need cattle that can withstand high and low temperatures on the same day. “
As the Stanko prepare to reduce their herd, they are considering new activities to supplement their ranching income. An option on the table: offer access to hunting and fishing or winter sleigh rides on their land.
The couple will know how many more cattle they will need to sell once they finish storing the hay in early September. They hope to slaughter only 10, but fear that this will represent up to half the herd, or around 45 heads.
Already, the family sold 21 heads last year after a disappointing hay harvest. This year, the harvest is even worse.
âWith the heat, it burns. I can’t cut it fast enough, âJim Stanko said of the hay harvest.
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