Drought Cow generic

Empty water holes caused by the drought in California.

Severe drought in the West, Southwest and the Northern Plains has forced livestock producers to make the tough choice of reducing their herd, according to a survey by American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). 

AFBF’s Assessing Western Drought Conditions Survey was distributed to state and county Farm Bureau leaders and farmer and rancher members in the West and Dakotas. Respondents were asked to rate a set of issues they may be facing due to persistent drought conditions. On a scale of 0 (not at all prevalent) to 5 (extremely prevalent), farmers and ranchers were asked to select how prevalent each issue is in their state based on their own experience or outreach with members.

Respondents were asked questions in three separate sections: livestock-specific factors, crop-specific factors and general water access. The survey had 678 responses from 12 states in the West. However, state Farm Bureau leaders were given the option to distribute the survey directly to members or fill out the survey on behalf of their members at the county or state level.

The survey found that more than 85 percent of ranchers said selling off portions of their herd or flock was prevalent or higher in their area, and 87 percent said an increase in feed costs associated with drought in their area was prevalent. For crop farmers, 77 percent rated reducing acreage as prevalent or higher in their area.

AFBF reported many producers spoke of “weaning animals earlier, reducing grazing time on rangeland, hauling water through mountain terrain and relocating herds across state lines.” In addition, “high feed costs attributed to abysmal precipitation levels further reduce achievable margins on livestock.”

One respondent stated, “The price received for cow-calf pairs at the local auction is so low it’s like giving the animals away.”

The Arizona Farm Bureau stated that ranchers surveyed have either begun to or planned to reduce their herd significantly.

“What is especially difficult in Coconino County has been covering the costs of water hauling, thanks to rugged terrain and water that can cost anywhere from 1 to 10 cents per gallon,” the Arizona Farm Bureau stated. 

“And the cost of water does not include the cost of fuel, vehicle maintenance and labor to actually get the water where it needs to go. One rancher alone reported hauling 240,000 gallons of water in this calendar year alone.”

A California rancher explained, “We have had to reduce our herd by 66 percent to deal with the lack of feed, traveling out of state to try to buy feed and huge transportation costs.”

On the crop side, farmers reported either switching planned crops or reducing acreage as moderately prevalent or higher. Several participants reported current and expected yields are down by over 75 percent of their normal crop, with examples of forage grass failing to germinate; alfalfa ceasing growth after 4 inches; and plants being completely dried out from low humidity levels. Some respondents reported tilling under or destroying crops to deal with any potential future losses in production. 

The general water access issue of reduced surface water deliveries was scored near the very prevalent threshold, with increased groundwater use rated near prevalent. 

Danny Munch, AFBF associate economist, said “86 percent of our respondents said that they’ve experienced reduced water deliveries, with most of that being very prevalent across the board, and that really links back to such a low amount of water in all of the reservoirs that farmers and ranchers rely on out west.”

California and Nevada rated reduced water deliveries and increased groundwater use as very prevalent. 

California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) told WLJ ranchers were issued water curtailments by the State Water Resources Control Board and ranchers and producers are likely to make decisions to reduce their herd, particularly in the north-central area of the state. 

“Whether it is from facing water cutbacks or it is due to the lack of precipitation causing dry conditions and absent access to feed, we know ranchers across the state are in a difficult position due to the drought,” CCA said in an email. 

“Some are having to liquidate their herds and some are having to haul in water, depending on their drought management plans. The more curtailment orders that are issued, the more likely that ranchers and producers will have to find other sources of water.” 

Colorado, Oregon and Utah scored reduced water deliveries as very prevalent. New Mexico rated increased groundwater use as very prevalent. 

AFBF stated in their survey, “Many farmers and ranchers are nervous about future local water-use policies that could favor commercial and residential use over agricultural use, putting local farm businesses at risk.”

AFBF concluded by saying the survey results are a “window” into the hurdles ranchers and farmers face in severe drought conditions and water shortages.

“Given the West’s vital role in providing a third of agricultural production by value, ensuring effective drought mitigation objectives are discussed and enacted are of utmost relevance to a secure domestic food supply and protecting our farm and ranch families,” AFBF concluded. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor

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