U.S. Water News Online
MANHATTAN, Kan. -- For cattle producers in the High Plains,
making money this year has placed them between the proverbial rock
and a hard place.
Some have little choice but to sell some -- or even all -- of
their cow herd. Those who keep their herds likely will be paying more
to feed the animals because drought in much of the region continues
to keep pastures from growing much-needed grass and has severely
shortened the supply of on-farm forages.
In western Kansas, many farmers have seen less than three inches
of moisture since January, said state climatologist Mary Knapp. On
average between January and July, the National Weather Service
reports that Kansas' northwest division receives 11.88 inches of
precipitation, but this year the region has received just 5.48
inches, making it the second driest year since 1895.
Rain in Colby over the weekend -- which totaled 1.30 inches and
flooded many of that city's streets -- "hasn't improved conditions
much," Knapp said. Even with the downpour, Colby is well short of the
3.95 inches that the city normally gets in July.
The hope that crops used for forages will stage even a partial
late- season recovery are iffy. Knapp said the outlook for
precipitation through Aug. 1 is above normal for the eastern
two-thirds of the state, and equal chances for the west.
"Longer term," she said, "the August to October outlook is for
equal chances on temperatures, and equal chances on moisture except
for extreme northwest Kansas where there is a chance for above-normal
That outlook has spurred ranchers' pessimism toward not having
enough forage to feed hungry cows -- not just this summer and fall,
but especially in the coming winter.
"The best decision," says Kansas State University livestock
marketing economist Rodney Jones, "may be to reduce the size of the
cow herd and perhaps get back into the business at a later time.
"That's not an easy thing for me to say. It's an even more
difficult thing for someone who's sitting out there looking at a cow
herd that they've spent years and years putting together."
Twig Marston, a cow-calf specialist with K-State Research and
Extension, says northwest Kansas' rain deficits are especially
troubling because that's an area where he says "we have a large
number of cows."
In western Kansas, he adds, "there are no standing forages to
speak of. As you go further east, they have begun deteriorating" in
the past few weeks.
"We know that we are going to run out of forages [in western
Kansas]," said Marston, noting that Kansas Extension agents have been
working with ranchers since early May to lower their stocking rates
in pastures. "Even if we get back to normal rainfall, we can't make
up for that lost forage production of the native grass pastures we
have out there."
In Kansas, the average cow-calf producer spends $250 to $275 per
year to feed one cow. With the current high cost of alternative
feeds, Jones said that expense will easily be at least $300 per cow,
and possibly as high as $350.
"I can think of very few cow-calf producers who can stand that,"
But whether to sell some or all of a herd to balance costs still
is based on decisions unique to each producer. As one guideline, feed
costs normally should not be higher than 65 percent of a cow-calf
producer's total operating costs.
"One of the strategies we have to consider before reducing cow
numbers is the overall efficiency of the farming and ranching
operation," Marston said. "When feed costs reach 70-80 percent of
operating costs, then that's out of line."
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