Drought pressures ranchers | nnbw.com

Drought pressures ranchers

Rob Sabo

Ranchers in northeastern Nevada face a multitude of difficult decisions after an unseasonably dry winter left the state’s vast rangelands in poor condition for grazing cattle and sheep.

The Nevada Drought Response Committee two weeks ago declared Churchill, Clark, Elko, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, Lyon, Pershing, Storey, Washoe and White Pine counties in a state of severe drought, and Carson, Douglas, Esmeralda, Lincoln, Mineral and Nye counties in a state of moderate drought. The dry conditions, coming on the heels of one of the wettest winters on record, has ranchers shaking their heads at nature’s fickleness.

They also face the possibility of reducing their herds or spending large amounts on feed to nurture their livestock.

Some ranchers have been feeling the effects of drought since late last year. Hank Vogler, owner of Vogler Ranch, says he was forced to run water trucks for his livestock beginning in October. Vogler runs several hundred head of cattle and several thousand sheep at his large ranch in North Spring Valley near Ely. The spread is watered by several small creeks and ponds and piped waterlines.

Sheep usually can survive the winter on snowmelt, Vogler says, but the remote corner of the state just didn’t have any precipitation for months. Vogler had to haul water for his livestock all but 15 days this winter and spring. The drought had more ramifications than just increasing costs for hauling water and employing more workers moving from camp to camp.

“During the breeding season the sheep had to come back to water troughs, which complicates the thrift of the rams and ewes,” Vogler says. “They walk off more energy than they get, dust and dirt contaminate the wool and drives the price down, and it doesn’t grow as long.”

The story was repeated with his cattle. Calves in this year’s crop probably will weigh an average 425 pounds, down 50 pounds from last year when range grasses were plentiful and herds did not have to expend extra energy traveling to water troughs. Fifty pounds light at sale time spells a significant drop in average price for feeder cattle.

Vogler says he’s already been taken off grazing on federals lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management, and he had to rent pasture space near the Idaho border. In addition, he’s sold off a load of older cows to control expenses.

“It is like triage,” he says. “At the end of day you hope you can hold together the nucleus of your livestock. Agriculture is the only business where you can do everything right and still fail.”

Hundreds of miles away in Orovada, cattle ranchers face similar conditions. As of May 1, streams in parts of Humboldt County were running 25 to 49 percent of normal, with many streams running less than 25 percent of normal, says Katie Nuffer, program specialist for the Nevada State Farm Service Agency and acting county executive director for Humboldt and Lander counties.

Rancher Ron Cerri has seen the stream that cuts through his ranch reduced to a trickle over the past few weeks. Cerri, owner of Rebel Creek Ranch, which runs about 400 head of cattle, says the region also didn’t get any salvation from spring rains to help foster growth of rangeland grasses.

Humboldt County ranchers, Cerri says, haven’t yet started selling off their herds, but a large-scale culling definitely could be part of their plans in the near future. Some ranches in the county, he says, have hay in production that’s irrigated through well water.

Other ranches, such as Rebel Creek, are stream-fed, and those streams could be dry in less than a month.

“I am looking at buying hay if I don’t cull my herd; I don’t see an alternative,” Cerri says. “We are only probably producing a quarter of the hay we usually do, and we will have to look for alternative feed sources.”

Cerri expects to get just two more weeks of irrigation from the creek for which his spread is named. Last year he irrigated hay growing at his ranch through mid August.

Some ranchers will benefit from hay stockpiled from last year that will offset feed costs. Once they are forced to buy feed, though, ranchers will have to weigh the cost of feeding their herds versus selling them off.

“That is really saving our bacon,” Cerri says. “But as far as this year’s feed, it is poor. We are fortunate we had a good year last year.”

Ranchers faced with drought conditions have some relief in the form of programs offered by the Nevada State Farm Service Agency:

* The non-insured crop disaster assistance program provides financial assist to producers of non-insurable crops, such as hay, in case of natural disasters like a drought.

* The emergency conservation program provides emergency funding and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to carry out emergency water conservation measures in periods of severe drought.

* Emergency loans help producers in counties designated a primary disaster area.

No counties in the state have yet received that disaster designation, Nuffer says, but some northeastern Nevada counties are working toward earning that designation.

“There are risk management tools available to help producers weather the lack of storms,” Nuffer says.

The Nevada Drought Response Committee is made up of representatives of the Nevada State Climate Office, the University of Nevada, Reno, and the Division of Emergency Management and Division of Water Resources.