#Colorado ranchers are selling off cattle to survive another year of dried-up grass and parched soil — The Colorado Sun

From The Colorado Sun (Jennifer Brown, Michael Booth, and Jason Blevins):

The Western Slope has suffered a drought three of the last four years, and by now, it’s taken a toll on farmers and ranchers that is both financial and emotional. VanWinkle choked up as she spoke of the “crunch” she hears with every step through the pasture.

“It’s truly the grass and the flora crumbling into a million pieces with every step you take,” she said. “It’s brutal.”

Ranchers and farmers in western and southern Colorado are shipping livestock to greener pastures or selling them off entirely, as fast as the stream flows past their property are dropping. Late-season snowpack was bad enough: Half of the historical median in the Yampa and White River basins in the northwest, 29% in the Upper Rio Grande of the San Luis Valley, 42% in the Gunnison…

Runoff into the streams, rivers and irrigation canals that supply Colorado cattle operations is so low that ranchers are seeing their water supplies reduced to historically low levels or cut off completely.

Soil parched for years by drought is sucking down vital farm water before it hits a reservoir. On the Yampa, the flow into Stagecoach Reservoir this time of year usually runs 400 cubic feet per second. This year, it’s at 16.

The losses accumulate downstream. The major Colorado streams join the Colorado River, which leaves the state to deliver snowmelt to Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles. The catch basin that is Lake Powell will see only [28%] of normal inflow this year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation says. The next pool downriver, Lake Mead, on Thursday fell to its lowest level since the Hoover Dam gates were first closed in the 1930s.

Colorado water engineers are ordering groundwater wells shut down on some ranches for the first time in the history of the Rio Grande Water Conservancy District, said State Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, whose day job is head of the district. In Saguache County on the north end, one rancher refused to turn off groundwater pumps, and another rancher said the sheriff was sent out to cool tempers over the cease and desist order.

When ranchers can’t divert river water into irrigation ditches to flood pastures, or pump groundwater over hay meadows, their grass will stop growing by late June. Then, their choices are all money losers, and gut-wrenching ones at that. They can buy up other farmers’ land to get the water rights. They can put cattle in trucks to lease pasture in places where there is more water. They can buy hay at double or triple prices.

The Yampa River below the Stafford Ditch June 3, 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

Or they can reduce their herds, selling cattle to market early in order to have fewer bovine mouths to feed. Those cuts are happening at nearly every ranch, from Mesa County to Mancos, from Saguache to the Flat Tops.

The San Luis Valley and the Rio Grande

Near Saguache, the cumulative drought means tangible consequences this summer, after decades of abstract debate over declining streamflows and whether pumping from wells depletes the aquifer…

Saguache Creek

[George] Whitten’s grandfather homesteaded the place in 1893, but his water right is still not all that senior. The ranch can flood pasture with Saguache Creek water when there’s enough to reach his priority level, which is 38th. As Whitten spoke Friday, during prime runoff season, there was enough water to reach only the 24th priority…

The pastures will produce 75% less hay than normal this year, he said. Across Saguache County, 22,000 acres of land are impacted by the well shutdown. Whitten will send some cows and finishing calves to other pastures, making cheap arrangements as often as possible with farmers who want the fertilizing from grazing cattle to regenerate fields.

He will try to avoid buying hay bales for $300 a ton, up from the usual range of $100 to $200. Selling high-quality beef directly to consumers means he can avoid some of the “fire sale” moves other ranchers will have to make this season. Selling live beef cattle into flooded markets by fall might bring only 30 cents a pound. One of the last options for desperate ranchers, Whitten said, is an organic dog food company that’s always willing to buy, at surprisingly competitive prices…

Watson Creek at Ferguson Ditch Headgate June 3, 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

The Yampa Valley and the Flat Tops

On Bear River, a high creek that becomes the Yampa River below the Flat Tops, Andrea Schaffner’s family grows grass in flooded meadows at 8,500 feet. In a normal year, their 1910 water right lets them and six other ranchers take 30 cubic feet per second of river water for three to four weeks, through the Stillwater Ditch.

This spring, they got 3 cubic feet per second, for a total of 12 hours…

If the ranch is able to use some stored-water rights, and gets a little summer rain, they might grow 25 to 30% of their usual grass crop. The Schaffners also run about 30 cattle each year, which they graze on their son-in-law’s property. Their son-in-law is now on the hunt for grass for all the family’s livestock for the rest of the year.

The families have access to some federal grazing rights, but then they have to worry about potential drought-driven wildfires on those remote lands…

Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

The North Fork Valley and Delta County

Fruit farmers and cattle ranchers in the North Fork Valley ran out of water early last year as they sipped from Paonia Reservoir in a dry July.

More than 220 farmers and ranchers rely on Paonia Reservoir and the Fire Mountain Canal. After three years of weak snow, broiling summers and high winds, the ground in the North Fork Valley is “just unbelievably dry,” said Dixie Luke, the president of the Fire Mountain Canal…

Many of those users have developed water-saving drip irrigation systems and built holding ponds to allow for late-season irrigation, which is critical for fruit trees…

Last year, Ed Tuft had about 21 acre-feet of water in his primary ditch — most of which he rented to augment his share of water from Paonia Reservoir — to irrigate the almost 400,000 fruit trees he’s growing on 400 acres above the North Fork of the Gunnison River. This year, he has only 7.5 acre-feet. He’s ripped out 5,000 to 7,000 trees from his Leroux Creek Farms.

“Anything that was not going to produce in the next few years is out,” he said…

A few decades ago, the valley had about 25,000 acres of apple orchards and now it’s closer to 3,000, he said. The apricot and cherry market in the valley has declined just as much…

The Eastern Plains from Limon to Wyoming

On the Eastern Plains, the grass is a lush green, tall and thick. Most of the rain that fell on Colorado this spring hit the ground in Denver and out to the east, on the farm and ranch lands around Fort Morgan and Limon.

But don’t think the ranchers there are expanding their herds based on the good fortune of two or three months of rain. They know better.

Technically, the drought isn’t over, said Kelsey Pope, who along with her husband manages her parents’ cattle operation, River Bend Ranch, just west of Limon. The ranch has been in a drought since 2017, and 2020 was the worst Pope has ever seen…

Back in 2017, River Bend had 1,200 head of cattle. This year, it has just 480, a downsizing that was the result of years of parched soil. Without steady rain, the buffalo and blue grasses don’t grow tall enough to shade the ground, and the soil is zapped of its biodiversity and nutrients.

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