It takes about 25 years to build a uniform, quality cow herd with all the right genetics. In one summer, Thermopolis rancher Jim Wilson watched as 20 percent of his herd left his land.
He never imagined a drought would be this bad. He just couldn’t feed and care for all of his cattle after a spring and summer of no rain.
“It was definitely a tough year,” he said. “And the bottom line is, if we don’t get moisture between now and the middle of May, we haven’t seen the worst of this thing yet.”
This year was the driest in 118 years. It hit across the state and region, forcing ranchers to make tough decisions about how many cattle to keep and how many to sell early. Most ranchers survived the summer but speculate that another year with even a fraction of the drought conditions Wyoming saw in 2012 may mean some will have to leave the business.
Ranchers who depended on irrigation this year fared the best, said Jim Magagna, president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
Reservoirs ran full in 2011, leaving enough water for irrigators in 2012.
Those with leases in national forests had a slightly easier time, too, because higher country saw more moisture than the valleys.
But anyone grazing open range saw about
25 percent of normal growth, Magagna said.
Between January and November, the state received an average of 7.43 inches of precipitation, about five inches less than the 20th century average for the same time, according to the National Weather Service.
Many ranchers survived the five- to seven-year drought in the mid-2000s, but not one of those years came close to as bad as 2012. One area might have been extremely dry during the earlier drought, while another saw some rain, Magagna said.
Many ranchers sold cattle early this year, even shipping cows in May that they otherwise would have fattened until September.
The Torrington Livestock Markets moved
45 percent more cattle this year than normal, said Michael Schmitt, one of the market’s owners.
“If it wasn’t for 2011, I think you’d see the northern cattle herd completely decimated,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt figures Wyoming’s cattle herds will be down between 15 and 18 percent by the end of this year.
Because ranchers sold early, they also resigned themselves to moving cattle that weighed 50 to 70 pounds below normal, Magagna said.
“The salvation for this year was leftover forage from previous years,” Magagna said. “But now there’s no carryover forage.”
Cattle prices also stayed relatively high, the only silver lining in a tough year. When livestock producers had to sell animals, at least the market cooperated, Wilson said.
Niels Hansen remembers stories his father told from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Winds piled so much dirt against the sage brush it looked like brown snow drifts dotting the desert.
Hansen hasn’t seen dirt drifts this year on the same land his father owned in the ’30s, but he has noticed other eerie similarities starting with dry, cracked earth.
He managed his herds in southwest Wyoming this summer without suffering major losses, which he credited to feed saved up from last year.
“I worry about our wells drying up,” he said. “I’ve never experienced this before so we’re in new territory for me.”
Weather patterns for 2013 show it could be another warmer-than-average winter with below average precipitation, said Chris Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Riverton.
West of the Continental Divide is seeing about average precipitation this winter, but east of the divide, especially the northeast and central basins, is a bleaker picture. Next summer’s drought will depend largely on what falls in April and May, which so far is an unknown, Jones said.
Hansen sees another dry year starting already. His friends can still drive to cabins they would normally need snowmobiles to access this time of year.
But what worries both he and Wilson most is the regional nature of this drought. It’s not just a Wyoming problem.
In the past during droughts, Wyoming ranchers would send their cattle to other states to feed.
Only this year both ranchers started calling around and found neighboring states were seeing equally dry conditions. If next year is as bad as 2012, there won’t be anywhere to ship cattle except to market.
And if, several years from now, spring rains come back and conditions improve, those ranchers who liquidated their herds won’t necessarily be able to buy them back, Wilson said.
With fewer cattle on the market, prices for cows will rise and make it even harder to come back into the business.
“Pray for snow,” Hansen said. “And keep waiting and watching.”