Wyoming ranchers sell off cattle in record amounts to cope with drought

Holy Cows
2012-07-08T11:00:00Z Wyoming ranchers sell off cattle in record amounts to cope with droughtBy KELSEY DAYTON Star-Tribune reporter Casper Star-Tribune Online

Normally the Torrington Livestock market sells about 3,500 head of cattle in May. This year, it sold more than 18,000, said Michael Schmitt, one of the market’s owners. In June, it normally moves about 1,800. This year, it sold more than 17,000 head.

The dry weather is forcing ranchers across Wyoming to sell cattle months earlier than normal because there isn’t grass to feed the animals, Schmitt said. The weather could have a lasting impact on agriculture in the state, as well as future prices for beef, he said.

The company is up about 32,000 head from a year ago at this time, Schmitt said.

A recent video auction in Torrington sold 30,000 head, a number not particularly high for this time of year. What was different was the delivery date of the cattle sold. Normally at this time, ranchers plan to deliver the cattle in August or September, now most are shipping out in July, Schmitt said.

The last drought, which lasted from 2002 to 2009, forced ranchers to decrease livestock numbers. The number of cattle in the state in 2011 was only about 60 percent of the 2002 numbers, Schmitt said.

This drought could hurt an industry which was only starting to recover.

“It really is a meaner drought,” Schmitt said.

During the last drought, there were periods of rain that allowed grass and hay to grow. This drought, which started about a year ago, hasn’t offered such a reprieve.

Last year, summer’s abundance of water allowed many people to store water.

The big issue is the grass, said Jim Magagna, vice president of the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association.

“We’re not in as bad a shape for irrigation,” he said.

Some people are trying to move their cattle out of state for pasture, he said. But that is an expensive alternative and there are limited places, even out of state, for grazing.

In the western part of the state, ranchers on Bureau of Land Management property are worried they will be forced to move their livestock earlier than normal because the riparian areas are in such poor shape due to the drought conditions, Magagna said. Many of the people who lease grazing area from the BLM don’t have anywhere else to go, Magagna said.

In the North Platte Valley, hay is running about half the crop size of normal so far, Schmitt said. This year could yield as little as one-quarter of a normal hay crop, he said. Not only is the drought causing issues for feeding livestock, ranchers are facing exorbitant hay prices and most likely a shortage, he said.

Some are already buying hay in South Dakota to prepare for next winter and before the price increases, Magagna said.

Schmitt said he expects people will sell more cows this year, reducing the cattle population in the state by up to one-third.

“There are a lot of guys who just won’t [continue to raise cattle],” Schmitt said.

For the short-term, the beef market will see an influx of cattle as people sell, but in the next three to five years, fewer cattle will mean record high prices for beef, he said.

Already Schmitt said he’s seen small operators sell off entire herds. Larger producers might soon follow.

“They aren’t interested in fighting this anymore,” he said. “We’re just at a loss of what we’re going to do with this cattle.”

As for the Torrington market, Schmitt said staff members are trying to adapt to a completely new sale schedule.

Normally, the Torrington market only offers Friday sales this time of year. They’ve added Wednesday sales to help move the unusual number of cows. They are short-staffed and worry about what the mass sales will mean in the fall, winter and future, he said.

“It really concerns me long term what it will do to the cattle industry,” Schmitt said.

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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