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Drought Forces Wyoming Ranchers to Sell-Off Cattle in Record Numbers

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Thanks to light snowpack and a dry spring, Wyoming is in the midst of a severe drought. Such dry conditions mean that much of the grass that covers Wyoming’s open spaces isn’t growing. Wyoming Public Radio’s Madison Williams reports that’s bad news for the state’s cattle ranchers, who depend on the grass to feed their livestock.

MADISON WILLIAMS: The Department of Agriculture’s Doug Miyamoto says in some places, Wyoming has lost all of its grass cover.

DOUG MIYAMOTO:  We range in loss from about 50-percent loss of rangeland forage resources, all the way up to total losses. Meaning that there are counties within the state of Wyoming that are saying, basically, no grass grew at all

Williams: With pastures barren, ranchers are left with hungry cattle and no way to feed them.  In response, they’ve been forced to sell off their livestock months early, when animals are lighter and less profitable. While ranchers could buy hay, hot weather in the region has made it scarce and expensive. Another alternative is to ship cattle to leased land in greener states like South Dakota. But for many, that option also isn’t economically feasible. So many ranchers have had to put their livestock up for auction months earlier than normal. Lex Martin co-owns Torrington Livestock Market, the state’s largest livestock auction. He says ranchers are selling early in record numbers.

LEX MADDEN: Currently up to date, you know July 1st, normally we would have sold 60,000 head of cattle a year ago, so I’m just doing a comparison from a year ago, we’ve already sold 90 some thousand. So that is due to dry conditions and drought.

WILLIAMS: In the month of June alone, the market sold more than 17-thousand cattle—a huge increase from the nearly 33- hundred sold in the same month a year ago.

Luckily, Madden says, a strong market for beef has elevated prices, cushioning the pain. Still, he says ranchers can expect to take about a 200 dollar loss on each animal they sell early.

But selling for less profit isn’t the only problem caused by the drought. With such a shortage of feed available, some ranchers have also had to sell off they livestock they would normally keep to breed and replenish their herd. Over the years, those cows develop genetic characteristics specific to their environment. Doug Miyamoto says, the loss of genetic traits is something ranchers can’t make up.

MIYAMOTO: If your forced to sell all of your breeding stock, in a given year like this where there just isn’t any feed resource, how do you replace that? It becomes a difficult proposition for livestock producers to replace the value that they had in the genetics of their herd.

WILLIAMS: Kenny DeGering is one rancher who has been effected by the drought. He’s the president of DeGering Livestock near Lusk, Wyoming. He sold his livestock in June and July—three months early. Because of a lack of feed, DeGering will use hay he usually sells to feed his remaining livestock over the winter. He figures ranchers across the state are worried about what the future will bring.

KENNY DEGERING: I would image that you could go into most any coffee shop in any little town in Wyoming, and they’re gonna be talking about the same things. Do I keep my cows, do I buy hay, do I sell my cows and keep the yearlings, do I sell the yearlings and keep the cows. I’m sure that you’re gonna hear the same conversation in a lot of places.

WILLIAMS: The picture isn’t totally dismal for livestock producers in Wyoming yet. The state has stepped in to offer some cost-sharing programs to drought stricken areas, and next winter and spring could be a traditional wet season. But DeGering says that if the drought continues, they may not have many livestock around at all.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Madison Williams.

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