Wet weather lifts cattlemen's spirits
LA JUNTA, Colo. (AP)--Late winter snowfall and gentle spring rain showers have brought optimism to southeastern Colorado ranches, which had been suffering through multiyear dry spells that intensified last year.
"Everybody has had pretty good moisture around,'' said longtime rancher and La Junta Winter Livestock auctioneer John Campbell. "It started with a good snow and really the timing of the moisture this year is what was the most critical. It covered a pretty big area at a real opportune time.''
This season's wet weather is in stark contrast to last year, when little rain and high temperatures left acres of rangeland and pastures in poor shape. Last year's conditions forced some ranchers to sell cattle early. Some sold entire herds.
Campbell said most ranchers in the sale barn's immediate trade area--west to the Utah border, northwest to the Wyoming border and southwest to the New Mexico border--have seen wet weather.
"I think everybody is in real good shape,'' Campbell said, noting that prospects for summer grass that feed the cattle are excellent within 90 percent of his trade area.
John Jaklich, a rancher from Limon who was at the recent cattle sale, said his ranch has received good moisture and the grass on his ranch is green.
"It's better than it has been for several years,'' Jaklich said.
Jaklich, 65, is trying to be optimistic about a turnaround in Colorado's cattle industry this year.
"It's tough to predict what will happen, but we all have hope,'' he said.
Don Honey, who runs La Junta Livestock Commission, said sale numbers at his business are normal ahead of a major sale period in the fall.
"Right now it looks like this fall we will have more calves to sell. It sure ought to be a good year, and I think we will grow a lot more grass,'' Honey said.
Campbell said the price of beef is doing well so far this year, partly because total cattle numbers are down to record-low levels.
"Everybody has the same-sized ranch they have always had, but they are not running near the cattle on it so that stretches the grass out quite a little further,'' Campbell said.
He said the reduction in cattle numbers started in 2002, when the current drought began to plague the area.
"There hasn't been a significant increase in cattle numbers since that time. If anything, we are holding the same to maybe a little less and rebuilding the stage had been interrupted several times since 2002 because of the dry weather,'' Campbell said.
In 2007, pastures were in better condition because of two winter blizzards that buried the Lower Arkansas Valley with up to 3 feet of snow. Campbell said that was short-lived because it didn't rain last year until August.
"There really hasn't been an opportunity for ranchers to increase their herds,'' he said.
The high price of feed, hay and grain has also caused ranchers to be reluctant to build numbers.
"The production cost of wintering those cattle was higher than normal, so input expenses were higher,'' Campbell said. "As it worked out this year, ranchers could have bought more cattle and they would have been all right. But when you are coming off historically dry times, it's hard to get excited about restocking, especially when you know the expenses associated with wintering those cows is so high.''
Campbell hopes this year will be different.
"If we continue to get more moisture and make a lot of grass, the stage should be set for this fall and this winter to have abundant grass and feed source to where maybe these guys can start building some numbers back. Grass makes pounds, and pounds makes money,'' he said.