By Tony Malmberg
for Headwaters News
Drought started parching our south pastures in 98, two years earlier than the rest of the ranch.
We saw increased bare ground, poor plant vigor and one-third less production. Our sagebrush steppe, Rocky Mountain foothill ranch outside of Lander, Wyo., receives an average of 13.5 inches of precipitation per year. Even record-breaking moisture in the critical spring season of 99 failed to spark lackluster grasses in this area and bare ground increased again.
We cut our planned stocking rate for the 2000 grazing season in response to a previous dry fall. Then the real drought began.
Even with fewer cattle, we were in trouble early. The range's fast-growth period ended the first week of June three weeks ahead of normal. I quickly arranged to ship 1,000 yearlings 30 days early in response to the shortened growth season. Conditions continued to worsen.
The hot southwest wind sucked life from our springs, and cattle struggled to find adequate water all summer long. By August, I had to split the mud-caked, black-muzzled cattle into smaller bunches to relieve pressure on limited stock water.
Fires consumed pastures planned for fall grazing, so we shipped 300 head of cow-calf pairs 45 days ahead of schedule. We loaded tractor-trailers with the calves from the remainder of the cows 30 days early to allow their mothers time to add much-needed condition on their bones.
It's dry all over the West,
but the suffering isn't equal
By Greg Lakes, editor
Sept. 18, 2002
Big-picture analyses say the current drought statistically doesn't match the Dust Bowl or even the drought and heat of 1988.
Food prices aren't likely to rise anytime soon as a result, homeowners in Los Angeles and Phoenix have yet to empty their swimming pools, most restrictions on water use across the West are voluntary and losses to farmers and ranchers are expected to fall well short of 1988's $56 billion.
And during the height of the Dust Bowl, 63 percent of the nation was in the most severe stage of drought; in mid-August, that figure was 37 percent.
Still, the current drought's duration and geographic reach are longer and bigger than 1988, and the big-picture analyses blur some critical details in the Mountain West.
The Colorado River last month was running at 14 percent of average, the lowest in 150 years of record-keeping. Rocky Mountain ranchers are among the hardest hit, although it's too early to tally losses.
Dry forests have burned in massive fires in Colorado, Arizona, California, New Mexico and Oregon. And conditions are making more timber vulnerable to beetles and disease.
And while many urban dwellers are only slightly inconvenienced, the impact on some small towns, and on forest and field, is dramatic throughout the region. A summary from recent headlines:
Colorado foresters said they see hundreds of thousands of pines across the state dying from secondary results of drought: bark beetles, mistletoe. But what's unusual is that they also document trees dying from simple lack of water. Measurements at the Manitou Experimental Forest southwest of Denver show that the first seven months of 2002 were the driest since records began in 1937.
Thousands of acres of pines in New Mexico wilderness areas are succumbing to beetles, as drought-stressed trees can't produce enough sap to stave off insects.
In northern Utah, near the Idaho border, a significant number of farmers raise wheat, barley and hay without irrigation. They've lost about 70 percent of their yield this year and many say their operations won't survive another dry year.
In southern Utah, ranchers that depend on surface water to irrigate their fields are caught in a bind. Pasture and range is so poor, cattle are dying but it's too expensive to buy feed. And with everyone around in the same predicament, ranchers can't auction off their herds because no one wants to buy them.
Hawkwatch International says its observers have documented a steady decline since 1997 in the number of hawks, eagles, falcons and other raptors at its observation points in Nevada, Utah, Montana, the Grand Canyon and New Mexico. There's no direct cause-and-effect but plenty of circumstantial evidence pointing at drought, biologists said.
And while Phoenix residents are basking by the pool, Colorado homeowners are adjusting to changed lifestyles. Lafayette has put a moratorium on new taps and doubled its water rates. In the towns of Silt and Parachute, lawn-watering violators can get jail time and fines up to $1,000.
Parched Boulder hired six "water cops" to catch criminal lawn-sprinklers, set up a phone line so residents can turn in their neighbors, and from June to mid-July, cited 209 violators. The city stuck rows of plastic pinwheels instead of planting flowers at city parks and didn't open its public swimming pool.
In Denver, an estimated 75 percent of summer water use goes to landscaping, two thirds of that for lawns.
Some observers say that federal dams, canals and other water projects have masked the effect of living, ranching and farming in an arid climate. But as population growth and development pushes the limits of the water supply, and the water cycle turns to the dry phase, Westerners' adjustments may become more permanent.
"It just means we have to adjust our thinking, and come into better balance with the amount of water our arid landscape can provide," says Bart Miller, a lawyer for the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor.
Gains of yearlings, sale of light calves, and many more cows than usual not pregnant compounded our major financial loss. We received a nominal payment for government drought relief.
At least our quick de-stocking saved fall grass and lowered our winter cost. And then the grass snowed under.
Drought escalated hay prices and I hoped for a thaw. With a diet of fresh air and scenery, the cows stood belly-deep in snow, humped up, shivering, gaunt and growing thinner each day. We finally gathered and drove them 12 miles to Lyons Valley and winter-feed.
I minced the expensive freshly minted green alfalfa rations to a bare minimum. Cold weather sucked life-sustaining energy from the cattle and the old, thin cows started dying.
I had never seen two extremely dry years back to back in all my time ranching. The old timers told stories about the '30s and '50s, but they were distant and mythical.
With good fall moisture, I figured the worst was behind us. I needed to be cautious because the problems of increased bare ground and poor plant vigor that first showed up in the south pastures during their preliminary drought, were now prevalent across our entire ranch.
A downward spiral requires quick and drastic measures. It was too late for quick, but maybe drastic would help. We whacked more cattle from our 2001 stocking rate and planned to rest a couple of pastures to extend our recovery periods in the following year.
Carryover debt on our annual operating line still needed to be paid. We only had one week of fast plant growth. Drastic wasnt even good enough.
Once again we arranged to ship cattle early. In our attempt to get ahead of the downward spiral we were not as far behind as the previous year: only two weeks early on the yearlings this time, and their gains were back to normal. Calf weights and conception rates were back to acceptable levels too.
Once again, a paltry government drought payment did little to curb financial losses.
We met our goal of moderate to light grazing on nearly half of the ranch, but our continued downward spiral in production exacerbated by drought trapped us into grazing heavily on too much of the ranch.
I noted that in 2000, areas of high utilization yielded 78 percent of the 10-year average, while harvest on areas of moderate utilization was 94 percent of normal.
In 2001, these levels of utilization yielded 46 percent and 64 percent, respectively. We had 7.6 inches of moisture and 6.5 inches, respectively -- about half of average.
With this in mind, I begin working on my grazing plan for 2002 and the third year of the drought. This job used to be fun. Not anymore.
Financial problems distracted me. Yet, I knew that a covered soil surface, plant vigor and plant diversity were critical to coming out of the drought. My job was balancing our economic survival with the need to ensure that land recovery mechanisms did not cross a threshold.
I called my holistic management instructor, Kirk Gadzia. Kirk reminded me that it doesnt rain grass.
"Drought is nearly always followed by a flood. But the floods are from excessive runoff that should be going into the ground; not excessive rainfall," he cautioned me.
In February, I took my plan to graze 54 percent of our 10-year average to the BLM. I planned to rest four pastures, enabling still longer recovery periods. The BLM was taking all grazing plans before the entire range department and my range conservationist told me that our plan was approved without change.
Holistic management has changed my relationship with the BLM range conservationists. I used to view the range cons as the cause of my problems. Now, I understand that in most cases, my planning and execution cause many of my problems.
The tension is now between my ability to plan and execute, and the lands health -- not me and the BLM. Our energies are spent discussing grazing principles, such as time, timing, utilization levels and recovery periods, rather than arguing over turn-out dates.
As we wind down the third year of the drought (6.6 inches to date), our cattle are in good condition, the riparian areas are in good condition, and 20 percent of our range is rested to start next years grazing. The ranchs finances are not good, and with the Wall Street meltdown, increasing national deficits, and war against terrorism, significant drought relief will be elusive.
However, violating good land management practices is not the answer.
Good drought management is no different than good management in general. A functional water cycle, mineral cycle, energy flow and plant community dynamics are critical to sustainability, no matter what the conditions are.
A drought simply magnifies and accentuates mistakes. Historically, we see a drought once in a lifetime. We are experiencing the worst drought in 108 years of recorded history, with 33 of the last 35 months receiving less than average precipitation.
The question inevitably arises, "How does your present stocking rate compare to your previous practice of season-long grazing?" In the first year of the drought, planned grazing demanded a quick response to poor production and we reduced our stocking rate by 36 percent.
Those ranchers who graze their cattle season-long or in rest rotation systems typically made no corrections during the first year of the drought and grazed at historical levels.
In the next two years, our reductions paralleled reductions made by BLM administration on season-long and other system grazing permits in the area.
But in our case, planning in response to land conditions, not the BLM, drove the cuts.
It must also be noted that we rested 5 percent in 2001 and 20 percent in 2002. We also limited "time" to less than 15 days on the majority of the land and less than 28 days in all instances. These benchmark numbers result from a Montana State University study that riparian areas grazed less than 21 days will improve and those grazed more than 21 days and less than 28 days will maintain. Longer grazing periods degrade riparian areas.
These differences may not be significant if we return to average weather conditions but if we are in a 20- or 50-year drought, as some meteorologists suggest, it will be very significant. In short, planned grazing allowed us to respond to changing conditions more quickly.
The ability to notice changing conditions differentiates good monitoring from poor monitoring. Responding to changing conditions quickly defines the secret of good management.
With more than 50 percent of our moisture coming during the dormant season, a covered soil surface slows runoff and insulates against evaporation. Vigorous plants will respond quickly to moisture. Poor plant vigor and bare ground will prolong a drought. With a covered soil surface and good plant vigor, we will be ready for rain.
As a child, rain clouds would prompt me to ask my uncle, "Do you think its going to rain?"
He would look up at the sky and thoughtfully reply, "If it doesnt, it will sure be a long dry spell."
I always had to stop and think about that for a while. As financial pressures arise in todays climate, I have to stop and remember, "The best we can do in a drought is prepare the land for rain."
Tony Malmberg is a Lander, Wyo.-area rancher who practices holistic management.