The Salt
5:12 pm
Sun March 2, 2014

Even In A Desert, Drought Spells Trouble For Ranchers

Originally published on Sun March 2, 2014 7:09 pm

In northern Nevada, a place famous for its wide, open spaces and expansive cattle operations, ranchers are in a bind due to the historic drought.

Much of the state is desert, so when people talk about drought, they're really talking about the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. It's at barely 20 percent of average.

This is a huge concern for farmers and ranchers like Julie Wolf, because the mountains store the snow that melts and feeds rivers and reservoirs. These bodies of water then allow the desert to bloom with grass and alfalfa for her cattle.

The drought also means a lot less alfalfa will be grown here. Northern Nevada is one of the country's most important hay-growing regions.

"That's a big concern, if it's not grown here we have to bring it in, or the cattle have to go out," Wolf says.

This is the financial dilemma facing almost every rancher from Nevada to California and Oregon, as one of the worst droughts in a century continues its stubborn grip. The timing also couldn't be worse. The cattle industry is just starting to slowly rebound from a prolonged drought in the largest cattle-producing regions in the U.S. — Texas and the southern plains.

"Now we're in the midst of the drought and we're debating, do we sell cows, do we keep cows, do we have enough places to graze our own cows?" Wolf says.

'Unprecedented' Drought

Much of Nevada is going into its third year of severe drought, a situation that's unprecedented even for an arid region accustomed to dry spells, according to Ken Tate, professor with the University of California-Davis Cooperative Extension Service.

Tate says cattle ranchers are good at adapting. He's helping many try to squeeze out as much irrigation efficiency as possible, and to manage range lands so the vegetation is more drought-tolerant.

But there's only so much that can be done.

"There are not scientific answers to some of these problems. Sometimes there's no solution for not enough rain," he says.

The most likely scenario come spring, according to Tate, is that ranchers will be downsizing. Much like they did on the southern plains. That will have huge economic consequences for many family ranches, because it translates into a big drop in annual income.

Beef Prices Soar

There's another direct economic consequence, this time for consumers. Beef prices were already at record highs. Supply is down due to that drought in the southern plains and a freak blizzard last fall in the Dakotas.

However, Joe Glauber, chief economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says those prices can't all be blamed on the droughts.

"Feed costs themselves have been very high, and that has to do with the drought and more to do with the fact that we've had tight feed markets over the last five years," he says.

It's too early to predict how much more expensive beef may get, assuming the drought in Nevada and other Western states persists.

Everything will become clearer as spring approaches and ranchers like Julie Wolf begin to make some tough decisions.

For the Wolf family, it's personal. Julie and her husband Dan have spent the past 26 years building up their herd to what it is today — 200 head of cattle. If more rain and snow doesn't come soon, the couple say they're considering selling at least half of their herd.

"It affects what we grow, how many cattle we have, how many people we can employ," says Dan, whose family bought the ranch outside Fallon, Nev., in 1949.

The family business is at stake, Julie adds. "It changes whether or not our daughters can come back and ranch with us."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

There has been some welcome rain and snow in parched California and Nevada this weekend, but the region will need a lot of storms to climb its way out of this historic drought. We're going to take a look now at how the drought is impacting cattle ranchers and, ultimately, all of us at the grocery store. In northern Nevada, a place famous for its wide open spaces and expansive cattle operations, ranchers are in a particular bind.

NPR's Kirk Siegler spent some time in Fallon, Nevada, and has that story.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Northern Nevada is a desert. So when you talk about drought here, you're talking about the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. And right now, it's at historically low levels. Just glancing up at those towering mountains off to the west makes cattle rancher Julie Wolf worried.

JULIE WOLF: It'd make you crazy. It's like watching the stock market. It's just better to occasionally check it and see what it is and then move on.

SIEGLER: You can think of the snowpack like a stock market. It's unpredictable. Those mountains store the winter snow that melts and feeds rivers and reservoirs in the spring that allow this desert to bloom.

WOLF: Without it, we live in brush.

SIEGLER: And without it, Wolf's cattle have no green pastures to graze on. This severe drought also means a lot less alfalfa will be grown here. Northern Nevada is one of the country's most important hay-growing regions. At the edge of one field where seeds should be starting to sprout up, even the native sage and greasewood look like they're grasping at the skies for water. Wolf will let this pasture go fallow because there isn't going to be enough irrigation to go around.

WOLF: That's a big concern. If it's not grown here, we have to bring it in, or the cattle have to go out.

SIEGLER: To a state outside this drought-stricken region. Otherwise, what will they eat? This is the financial dilemma facing almost every rancher from Nevada to California to Oregon as one of the worst droughts in a century continues its stubborn grip. The timing also couldn't be worse. The cattle industry is just starting to slowly rebound from the prolonged drought in the largest cattle-producing region, Texas and the Southern Plains.

WOLF: And now, we're in the midst of the drought and we're debating, do we sell cows, do we keep cows, do we have enough places to graze our own cows?

KEN TATE: It's unprecedented, and I haven't worked in a drought this difficult.

SIEGLER: Ken Tate is a professor with the University of California, Davis Cooperative Extension Service. He says the only solution is for cattle ranchers to adapt. And they're used to that. Now, Tate is working with some to squeeze out as much irrigation efficiency as possible and to manage range lands differently. But if this drought persists much longer...

TATE: You know, there's not scientific answers to some of these problems. Sometimes there's simply no solution for not enough rain.

SIEGLER: And Tate says the most likely scenario come spring is that Nevada ranchers will be downsizing, much like they did on the Southern Plains.

TATE: And that has huge economic consequences for these families, that's a reduction basically in their annual salary.

SIEGLER: There's another direct economic consequence for consumers. Beef prices were already at record highs. And supply is down due to that drought in the Southern Plains and a freak blizzard last fall in the Dakotas. Joe Glauber is chief economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

JOE GLAUBER: And it's not just the drought, it's also the fact that feed costs themselves have been very high, and that has less to do with the drought and more to do with just the fact that we've had fairly tight feed markets over the last five years.

SIEGLER: Glauber says it's too early to predict how much higher cattle prices may go, assuming the drought in Nevada and other far west states persists. Everything will get a little bit more clear in the coming weeks as ranchers like Julie Wolf begin to make some tough decisions.

WOLF: And this is the swarm of dogs you get greeted with around here.

SIEGLER: For the Wolf family, it's personal. Julie and her husband, Dan, have spent the past 26 years building up their herd to what it is today - 200 head of cattle.

DAN WOLF: I mean, it affects how much more we grow, how much cattle and how many cattle we have. It depends on how many people we can employ. And we all...

WOLF: It changes whether or not our daughters can come back and ranch with us possibly.

SIEGLER: A family business at stake. The Wolfs say if more rain and snow doesn't come in the next few weeks, they may have to sell at least half of their herd. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.