Northern Nevada cattle ranchers are at a critical junction.
Nevada's vast federally owned rangelands, where thousands of head of cattle are permitted to graze each year, are all but played out from months of extended drought. The withered grasslands, combined with a lack of drinking water, have forced Nevada cattlemen to begin bringing herds in early to feed on private pastures or on hay grown and stockpiled during the last two seasons.
Once the feed on those meadowlands and stockpiles is gone, ranchers either will have to buy hay or start trimming their herds to avoid to the expense of feeding their animals. That could result in a flood of cattle to auctions and put downward pressure on prices. Ranchers say they also can expect less for their animals at auction due to reduced weight.
"We are kind of at a very critical transition through August," says rancher Boyd Spratling, who runs about 700 head at Spratling Ranch in Deeth. "Ranch-to-ranch, everyone has a different combination of range and meadows. Some guys are in real tough shape right now, and some are just squeaking by."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently declared drought a natural disaster in 26 states, including Nevada.
Ranches in northeastern Nevada, especially those in the Humboldt River Basin, which lacks storage except for Rye Patch Reservoir and its terminus in the Humboldt Sink, depend entirely on winter snowpack to feed the various small streams and springs that irrigate the meadows upon which cattle feed. Lacking water, hay tonnage produced on those meadows has plummeted, leaving many ranchers with limited feed supplies heading into the fall.
And that means that many ranchers, in turn, will begin reducing the size of their herds in coming months. Spratling says Nevada cattle typically head to feedlots in Colorado or Nebraska to fatten on corn before slaughter, or to California to fatten on the state's abundant grasslands on the Western slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
"The rangelands didn't get much spring moisture, and hot dry (summer) wind has just burnt those native plants back; there is no volume to them," Spratling says. "Everything is so brittle and dry. It is a tough season for livestock."
Some ranchers benefit from numerous springs and wells to irrigate their property, while others benefit from high-altitude pastureland that has held up better than lowland meadows. Ranchers Brad and Dani Dalton run about 850 head of cattle at their spread in Clover Valley south of Wells. Dani Dalton says the main problem for Dalton Livestock LLC is lack of drinking water rather than forage.
The Daltons have been pumping supplemental drinking water into troughs, and cattle often are forced to walk a long way to drink. Still, the couple doesn't plan to cull any of their herd early.
"There still is quite a bit of feed up in the higher pastures," Dani Dalton says. "And because we had such a mild winter we have quite a bit of hay left over. We probably will be all right and not have to buy any feed."
Wells resident Paul Bottari grows and sells hay and also leases out his rangeland near Lamoille after his second cutting of hay in the fall. Most of his hay is sold to horse owners, Bottari says, but he's already begun getting calls from ranchers seeking feed.
Lacking feed, cattlemen will go to market earlier than the normal October and November schedule. Cattle also will be lighter because they haven't fed as much.
"We are definitely looking at lower prices than we would have expected and lighter calves," Bottari says.
Boyd Spatling says he hedges his financial risk by selling his cattle as weaners and as yearlings. Weaners are freshly weaned calves weighing about 450 pounds, while yearlings usually top scales at 800 to 900 pounds.
Currently, prices for both are still strong. A recent video auction in Winnemucca saw ranchers averaging about $1.30 to $1.40 per pound for their animals. However, a flood of beef to market, combined with increased feed prices due to low yields throughout the Corn Belt, will lead to lower feeder cattle prices.
It will also lead to smaller herd sizes throughout the beef industry, which pushes up the retail price of beef.
In January Nevada's herd size was 470,000 cows and calves, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports. The U.S. cattle herd totaled 90.8 million head, the lowest inventory of cattle and calves since the 88.1 million on hand in 1952. There were a total of 29.9 million beef cows.
Despite the uncertainty headed into the autumn months, the real concern, ranchers say, is the potential for a second straight year of drought conditions. Spratling says many northern Nevada ranchers will be in serious straits if the state has another bone-dry winter.
"Two drought years in a row will just murder us," he says. "It is going to be kind of nip and tuck people will be culling their cow herds, and anything that's not a very viable cow will be the first priority to cull so it will have a minimum negative impact next spring."
Dalton agrees that two years of drought will deplete the overall size of Nevada's cattle herd, but she still remembers the record wet winter of 2010-2011.
"People like to panic, and it is justified," she says. "If you have cattle, and you don't have any way to get them water and feed, that is bad. But it is not the first time this has happened. A lot of people have had to cut back, but that is just part of the game."