Drought could leave Wyoming ranchers with tough choices

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GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) – Ranch hand J.W. Thrush slogged through mud to tag a heifer calf on a sunny, 60-degree day at the Tarver Heart X Ranch in northern Campbell County last week.

After it was tagged so it could be matched with its mama cow, Tyler Kern on horseback trailed the calf out of the corral and onto the pasture by Olmstead Road.

It may be a normal chore on the ranch, but doing it in heavy, thick mud instead of dry dirt was a positive sign after an unseasonably dry winter that has much of northeastern Wyoming in a drought.

The ranch received about an inch of precipitation last week, which helped the land turn a bit greener.

“We’re just so thankful that it’s starting to turn green,” said Jaime Tarver. Before the recent precipitation, “the moisture content was next to nothing.”

The Tarvers and other ranchers hope the recent precipitation is a sign of a nice, moist spring ahead. If not, the drought will continue for the foreseeable future and with it the possibility that ranchers will have to make tough decisions.

‘A fairly substantial amount’

As of early April, about 85% of Campbell County was classified by the National Weather Service as being D-2, or in a severe drought.

“It’s every bit as bad as 2012,” said Jaime’s husband James Tarver in comparing current conditions to the last severe drought in the region.

That drought was so severe that at one point fire restrictions were implemented in both the Bighorn National Forest and Black Hills National Forest.

Campbell County is not alone in being wary of a severe drought; 28% of Wyoming is in the same boat. Along with potentially devastating impacts for ranchers, the dry conditions also make the region ripe for wildfires.

“I put that as a fairly substantial amount,” said Tony Bergantino, acting director of the Wyoming State Climate Office. “We don’t see that too often. Before that you have to go back to the 2008, early 2000s droughts.”

As of Thursday, Gillette had received 3.25 inches of precipitation since Oct. 1. That is 3.54 inches less than the normal 6.79 inches.

Weston has had 2.38 inches, which is 2.25 inches below normal (4.63 inches).

Last week, those areas received more than a quarter inch of precipitation, the most in a day since October, according to the National Weather Service office in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Those amounts are a concern especially for ranchers, firefighters and landowners worried about potential fires, said Alex Calderon, National Weather Service meteorologist.

What’s to blame?

La Niña is partly to blame for the drought, Calderon said. La Niña is when cooler-than-normal sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean impact global weather patterns. It happens every few years and can persist for as long as two years.

The changes have global impacts since the location of powerful tropical storms affects atmospheric high and low pressure patterns across the planet. The patterns can move the jet stream and alter storm tracks, so a La Niña can affect temperature and precipitation in distant locations, including Western states, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But there is another factor.

Campbell County is leaving behind a wet period and entering a dry one. Each can last anywhere from eight to 10 years, according to the National Weather Service.

“This is the make-or-break time of year for us as far as moisture goes and production-related issues like that,” said John Flocchini, manager of the Durham Ranch outside of Wright.

The 55,000-acre ranch is home to about 3,000 bison, Flocchini said, adding that ranchers already are worried about the possibility of a sustained drought.

“One storm can be a game-changer and we’re holding out for that,” he said.

If weather holds off another couple of months, it will be too late, said Doug Camblin, who operates the Morse Harris ranch 8 miles east of Recluse with his wife, Charlene. Ranchers need rain now to provide enough feed for cattle through the summer.

“If you don’t get rains at the right time, your grass doesn’t grow,” he said. “It’s a good chance that we will have a short grass year depending upon spring rain.”

Decisions, decisions

All eyes are on the moisture numbers of this past winter, but the drought began about a year ago.

“We went from having two really good years to getting slammed,” Flocchini said about last summer. “It was one of the first years I’ve ever experienced here, as far as moisture goes, to see somewhere around 50% to 60% of our normal precipitation.”

Campbell County was in a moderate drought last June, but that elevated to severe in July before escalating into extreme by the end of September. While conditions have slightly improved, it’s not nearly enough.

“I don’t think we’re quite out of it,” Bergantino said.

Ranching involves complex decision-making and risk management in the face of uncertainty about climate conditions. The profitability and sustainability of the industry depend on sufficient and timely precipitation for rangeland forage production. As a result, some ranchers may adopt strategies as a bet against droughts like the Tarvers did when they decided to destock, or reduce, 20% of the ranch’s inventory several months ago.

“That was a pretty major move,” Jaime Tarver said.

The Durham Ranch also had to destock.

“Most of that was on breeding stock, which means roughly 20% less calves and that definitely affects the cash flow,” Flocchini said.

What the hay

The 180-acre Double Hook Ranch is located about 15 miles northeast of Wright.

Since October, the area has received about 3 inches of precipitation, which is about half the normal of 5.76 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

“The wind just strips the ground, strips the small grass that’s trying to come in,” Double Hook Ranch co-owner Kathy Morales said. The drought worsens the situation.

The parched conditions have forced Kathy and Chris Morales to sell half of their broodmares. The couple has raised horses on the ranch since moving from Buffalo about 15 years ago.

“It wasn’t something we wanted to do, it was something we were forced to do,” she said about culling their animals. “If there’s no grass out there, your hands are tied.”

That leaves the couple with eight broodmares to go along with 50 Black Angus they own. But there is another big problem exacerbated by drought – the rising costs and shortages of hay.

In November, it cost $110 for a 1,000- to 1,200-pound bale of hay. This month, prices ballooned to about $185.

“It’s almost doubled and I see it getting worse if there isn’t any moisture to get (to) the hayfields,” Kathy Morales said.

They’re not the only area ranchers concerned about hay prices and availability.

While the Durham Ranch was fortunate to get its grass/alfalfa mixed hay at reasonable prices last May and June, it had to buy more of it than in the past.

“Our hay production was terrible, obviously,” Flocchini said. “We didn’t have the grass, the forage that we would typically have.”

If they are not raising their own hay or having it shipped, some ranchers are having to travel farther to pick it up because the drought is so widespread.

Camblin recently drove about 300 miles to Murdo, South Dakota, to get some hay.

“It will be that or more this year,” he said. “It’s an extra expense to pay for the price of a drought.”

‘We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature’

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service are predicting the drought in Campbell County to continue through June 30.

“Hopefully, that doesn’t pan out and we get some good moisture this spring,” said Scott Rudge, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Rapid City. “We can have some pretty wet months in April and into June and July. (But) if we don’t get any through the end of June I think there is going to be some bigger concerns.”

The summer is when the land typically dries up after the wet season ends. If 2012 is any indication of what could come, ranchers could be in for a long rest of the year.

“That is all out of our control,” Camblin said. “We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.”

The Geis Brothers LLC, which owns 350 pairs (cow-calf) of Angus and some Herefords, has held its own since the drought began last year. But Kevin Geis is worried about the drought lasting much longer and its potential to impact his 25,000-acre ranch about 15 miles southwest of Gillette.

“If it continues, we would have to reduce some numbers and look at getting rid of some animals or trying to find some pasture elsewhere. But everybody is looking for that, so it’s not like it’s easy to come by,” he said. “It’s concerning, but a lot can happen in the next two months to change the outlook for sure.”

At the Durham Ranch, conditions have been looking better for Flocchini because his creek has come up this spring. The drought hasn’t affected his water well production and he’s able to continue to provide drinking water for the bison. But he admits to not feeling very easy about the season.

“We’re concerned and nervous for sure, no question about it,” he said. “We will do what we have to do, which is kind of what ranchers do when we’re faced with severe environmental conditions.”

The drought could lead to grass not growing to levels that cattle and other animals can feast on. In turn, it could lead to ranchers having to travel more to buy hay to feed them. The increase in demand would likely cause prices to skyrocket and could force operations to make difficult choices like reducing inventory or worse.

The Moraleses may be forced to sell the rest of their broodmares if the drought continues and hay prices continue to skyrocket.

“The breaking point is the price of hay and availability,” Kathy said. “If that really goes further than what it is at this point, we’re just going to have to sell out and it’s tough. For people like us, it’s tough.

“It would be a sad day. I’ll be pretty speechless because I’ll be crying. I put a lot into this.”

The drought also could have a lasting impact.

Younger generations of ranchers may not want to keep fighting the good fight with Mother Nature as has emerged as a trend for ranching nationwide.

“In a weird way this affects the future farmers and ranchers too, because they see the struggles and droughts,” Kathy Morales said. “Are they going to continue what their family has done forever? You can’t say that because you don’t know how the droughts are going to go.”

‘Hunker in’

Times are tough now and the near future doesn’t appear to be much different with predictions having the drought lasting into the summer. But for 89-year-old Eda Reno, it is about having faith and being resilient.

“I’m very positive,” she said. “That’s the only way to be.”

Reno lives on a 12,500-acre ranch headquartered a couple of miles near Highway 59 south of Wright on Spring Creek where she raises Red Angus cattle.

Reno has weathered many droughts over her decades as a rancher.

“You just hunker in and go with the flow,” she said. “You just adapt to the conditions is the way I look at it.”

Regardless of their respective situations, ranchers need to keep their heads up. Dealing with Mother Nature is a tough, but necessary, part of the job for these stewards of the land. It always has been and always will be.

“When you’re alive and above ground you have to be positive,” Reno said. “Somebody up there is taking care of it.”

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