Fires and drought consuming prime grazing land

Jun 29, 2012

Monstrous, raging wildfires consuming massive swaths of parched land in western states, destroying hundreds of homes and forcing tens of thousands to evacuate also are making conditions hotter than blazes for ranchers grazing livestock on the range and in dire need of expensive hay and scarce water for their cattle and sheep.

More than 1,000 heat records were shattered in the U.S. the week of June 25 with more than 250 new daily temperature highs set last Tuesday alone. The nation’s hottest spot on Wednesday wasn’t at Death Valley, but in Kansas as a brutal drought tightens and expands its grip throughout the country. The relentless heat wave has blistered the West and Midwest with triple-digit temperatures.

Perhaps hardest hit, Colorado has been devastated by apocalyptic, virtually uncontrollable flames fanned by strong winds, and fueled by terribly dry trees and vegetation, threatening major population centers like Colorado Springs, Boulder and Fort Collins.

Kenny Rogers, owner of the Wagon Wheel Ranch in Yuma County and former president of the Colorado Livestock Association, raises 400 to 500 head of cattle in the state’s northeastern corner. This year’s destructive wildfires are starting a month or two earlier than normal, causing

the loss of range and pasture land, he observes.

“The need for hay has gone up immensely. The drought is pretty bad,” Rogers says. “There was no spring runoff in June this year. I don’t know of any area in the state that had spring runoff to speak of.”

Last March, a wildfire burned

34,000 acres in Yuma County and destroyed 150 miles of fence worth an estimated $1.5 million. One of Rogers’ neighbors has been forced to wean all of his calves earlier than usual. “They’re having to make pretty tough management decisions,” he says. “Usually, they’re not forced to make them

until August or September.”

A drought spread from Texas to southern Colorado a few years ago, but has now reached Rogers’ part of the state. There have been no appreciable rain showers since the first week of February.

The magnitude of Colorado’s wildfires classifies the state as “priority area number one in the nation,” directly impacting livestock producers, he says. Those who rely upon rainfall to water their livestock are especially hard hit.

Fire zones can cause streams to fill with silt and make the water unfit for animal consumption, Rogers notes.

“The fact there is no rain, a lot of streams are not running. … The drought is not allowing forage sorghum to be planted. Seed is not even germinating it’s so dry.”

A veterinarian in Fort Collins was allocated only enough ditch water for a day and a half, but gave it away because he felt it would not even get the ground wet, Rogers mentions, noting some estimate the wildfires will not end until snow falls in the winter.

“The cost of production is really messing things up right now. Most ranchers are scrambling to find additional grazing or making plans to cope with the fact they are thinning herds or weaning early or both,” Rogers says.

While fuel costs have softened, they are “still way high.” He adds fuel costs seem more expensive in rural places farther from population centers. Fertilizer costs also are tied to petroleum price hikes. “With extreme fires, we can literally be burned out of business,” Rogers says.

Patrick Bray, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, says while there have been a few wildfires so far in his state, livestock production has not been adversely impacted—yet. In a few weeks, Arizona ranchers will be moving hay and cattle in search of pasture.

“It’s completely a 180 from last year at this time,” Bray says, referring to several hundred animals killed in 2011 by wildfires. “We really are just crossing our fingers, praying we will get to summer monsoons. … We haven’t had any measureable precipitation. We’re very, very dry and definitely a tinder box.”

With virtually no spring rain this year, there’s a high potential for forest fires in Arizona’s northern tier with a few wildfires already breaking out in the state. Arizona has one of the highest, if not the highest, number of permits issued for forest use in the West because of its large expanse of federal land.

“At this point in time, management kind of is in overdrive, hauling water, really monitoring the range. … This really is a critical point of the year to hold on until we get good summer rains,” Bray says.

Usually, the rains come in July. The southern part of Arizona so far has received only a 16th of an inch of precipitation, or “just enough to kill the dust.” A huge dust storm between Tucson and Phoenix was reported last Wednesday. Those two cities have been locked into temperatures above 100 degrees for many days.

Brays says there are only two families in all of Arizona still running sheep, but the approximately 900 cattle raisers in the state have done a very good job managing the range. “These cattle are very well adjusted to the range and the environment they’re in.

“We understand drought.

We understand how to deal with it and properly manage,” Bray says, noting the advent of the storm season is a Catch 22 because dry storms bring lightning that can ignite range fires.

Brent Tanner, executive vice president of the Utah Cattlemen’s Association, says the Beehive State has suffered several wildfires this year that have killed a number of sheep, destroyed homes and forced evacuations.

“It’s an unusually early season for our fires. These types of fires don’t occur until July or August. We’re seeing August fires,” Tanner says, predicting it’s going to be a tough summer for livestock producers, even discounting the impact of fires. “Our crops are very poor. The drought has highly impacted them. … The first cuttings of hay have not been good at all. Our producers have got some challenges ahead of them.”

Although gross income has been up for many ranchers, they have had to cope with higher feed and fuel input costs. “Right now the markets are good, but this is going to be a tough year,” Tanner says. —

Mark Mendiola,

WLJ Correspondent

(See U.S. Drought Monitor on page 9)

The Last Chance fire, started June 25 by sparks from the wheel of a vehicle that blew a tire, destroyed 45,000 acres of pasture land and fields of corn, wheat and hay. In a little more than 12 hours, it grew from an ember to the fourth-largest wildfire in Colorado history. Photo by Andy Cross, The Denver Post.