Dry Weather Hurts Wyoming Hay Growers, Cattle Ranchers

16:51PM Jul 02, 2012

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CHEYENNE - Hay is big business in Wyoming.

Beef is even bigger.

But after several months of unseasonably dry, hot and windy weather, both markets are facing stresses. That could eventually impact consumers when they go to the market to buy meat.

This spring and early summer have been the driest that Wyoming has seen since 2002, officials say. That has hurt both hay growers and beef cattle ranchers.

"As of June 24, 66 percent of our pastures were rated in poor or very poor condition," said Todd Ballard with the National Agricultural Statistics Service's Cheyenne field office.

He added that the next closest years were 2002 and 2004 when they were rated 62 and 61 percent poor or very poor, respectively.

As a result, Ballard said, ranchers who stocked up on yearling calves last year now have nothing to feed them. That is forcing them to either buy more hay or sell the cattle early.

At the same time, hay growers across Wyoming will harvest 400,000 fewer tons this year than they did last year, Ballard said. That is a decline of 17 percent.

Since many of those growers are also ranchers, they have been unwilling to sell what hay they do have. That has sent hay prices skyrocketing. They are now double what they were two years ago, and they may climb even higher, Ballard said.

"Hay is our largest crop here in the state," he added.

Last year hay brought in $307 million, about 23 percent of the value of the state's agricultural production. With the decline in hay production and sales, the poor weather could cost the state $56 million in lost revenue, Ballard said.

But Liz Lauck of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association said the fiscal impact could be even worse for ranchers: The lack of feed is forcing them to sell cattle for less than they paid for them.

"What we've seen in previous droughts is that when we don't have any pasture, everyone sells their cattle at once," Lauck said. "That then drives the prices down because the market is flooded with supply.

"Then later on, all the cattle have been sold and prices go up because supply is low and demand is still high."

The situation is so bad in some areas that ranchers have even had to sell off their base herds - cattle that have been bred over several generations to provide the most tender, high-value meat.

Mark Eisele at King Ranch just west of Cheyenne on Happy Jack Road said, "We spend years working on the genetics of those base herds so that they produce good, marbled beef.

"Guys are trying to hang on right now, and unless this turns around, they're probably going to have to send most of those cattle out of state or just sell them outright."

Large operations may have the most to lose as cattle prices decline.

"

What happened earlier this spring is, people were paying $1,000 for a 550-pound calf," Eisele said. "Now they're selling them for $900.

"That may not sound like a lot until you realize some ranches, they may have bought a couple thousand calves to stock their ranch last year."

Eisele said his operation has fared better than most, thanks to conservative purchasing and a supply of hay held over from last year. But even he hasn't been immune to the effects of the weather.

While he usually grows more than enough hay to feed his cattle, Eisele said that won't happen this time around.

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We're going to be hay buyers instead of hay sellers this year," he said.

He said his pastures are about 40 percent of what they should be, adding that he expects the crop to be 30 percent of what it normally is.

But even if the rains do come, Eisele said it may not make much of a difference. Cool weather grasses that benefit the most from added moisture already have stopped growing for the season.

"We like to joke that we're in the cow business, but really we're in the grass-forage business," he said. "Without those, you can't have much of the cow business."

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