The prolonged drought across the West is drying up profits for northern Nevada ranchers.
Last fall, Battle Mountain rancher Pete Tomera spent more than $300,000 on hay to feed his herd of 1,800-plus head of cattle. Tomera Ranch hasn’t bought any additional feed yet this year but it has spent tens of thousands of dollars moving cattle off federal land in Lander County and hauling water to animals kept on private rangelands. Tomera also spent more than $80,000 this spring building 16 miles of fence to keep his animals from moving onto federally protected rangeland.
The fiscal impacts of several years of below-normal snowpacks is hitting some ranchers quite hard, while others have been able to sidestep many of the drought problems and are reaping the benefits of record-high beef prices, says Ron Torell, head of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association. Although the drought-related issues are pretty widespread, their severity depends entirely on the resource makeup of a given cattle ranch, he says.
“Every ranch is different, and the resources that are available to them is different. Every ranch is affected in a different way. Some ranches may be OK and for other ranches it may be devastating.”
Just how dry is it out there? Dave Simeral, associate research meteorologist with the Western Regional Climate Center and Desert Research Institute, says current reservoir storage capacity statewide is 17 percent compared to the historical average (1981-2010) of 55 percent. Late summer rains eased extreme drought conditions and greened up rangeland grasses in many parts of northeastern Nevada, Simeral says, but that rainwater did little to fill the state’s depleted reservoirs.
“It’s pretty grim — the worst in the Western States right now,” says Simeral, who is one of 11 national authors for the United States Drought Monitor, which maps drought conditions throughout the country.
Tomera, like other large ranchers in northern Nevada, has cattle spread across hundreds of miles of Nevada rangeland in an effort to keep his herd intact and fed. Tomera owns hundreds of acres of land in four different Nevada counties, but other ranchers are forced to rent pasture space to feed their herds.
Hank Vogler runs one of the largest sheep ranching operations in the state in White Pine County. The water sources that supply his ranch are running so small now that he’s been forced to move hundreds of head of sheep — Vogler’s got animals scattered from the Idaho border down to Highway 50 in an effort to salvage his ranching operation.
“It is triage,” he says. “We live or die by what the desert produces. You can’t starve profit into an animal. If you can’t take care of it you have to get rid of it. Those animals must have a certain amount of nutrients to produce enough milk and food and fiber.”
The winter of 2013-14 proved to be a double-edged sword for northeastern Nevada ranchers and their animals. On the one hand, the lack of snow and brutal cold weather meant cattle and sheep didn’t burn many calories keeping warm in sub-zero temperatures. For the most part, herds entered spring fatter than if they’d spent months battling cold winter weather
But on the other hand, the snowmelt-fed creeks and streams in Elko, White Pine surrounding counties that supply ranchers with forage grasses and water for their herds ran dry months ago or are trickling through muddy creek beds. The parched ranchland in many northern Nevada counties can’t sustain large numbers of livestock, and the Bureau of Land Management in some counties has banned ranchers from moving their herds onto their normal summer grazing areas as a result.
The Bureau of Land Management’s Battle Mountain District Office on August 22 indefinitely closed the Argenta Allotment in Lander County to grazing. Tomera Ranches immediately hired additional cowboy crews to round up its animals and remove them prohibited areas. Tomera also hired a water tender who runs thousands of gallons of water every day to troughs spread across the ranch’s private lands, and he began selling off 450-pound calves rather than holding them over until they reached 850-pound yearling weight to reduce feed demands on the ranch.
The years-long drought has reduced herd sizes across the United States and as a result pushed beef prices to record highs, Torell says. Prices for 450- to 500-weight calves are running between $2.50 and $2.75 a pound, while prices for 800-pound yearlings are trading in the $2 to $2.50 range, Torell says. For some ranchers, those prices are the difference between surviving these difficult times and going under.
“Thank goodness,” Tomera says. “The Lord must be helping us because if they were cheap we would be out of business.”
It’s not all bleak news on the range, though. The healthy dose of late-summer rains greatly improved the availability and quality of forage in many areas, Torell notes. And despite the harsh summer conditions across the state this year, ranchers like Vogler remain optimistic.
“Ag is the only business you can go into and do everything right and still fail. This is just setback in the road, but we will survive,” he says.