BOULDER, Colo. – For western Colorado ranchers, the decision to sell cattle during tough times can hinge on a flower. Local cattle have developed immunity against the poisonous larkspur that live among more edible grasses. So a rancher culling a herd he can't afford to feed faces a problem restocking once economics improve: The replacements may die if they binge on the purple and pink larkspur.
That's the problem confronting Carlyle Currier, who owns a 4,000-acre ranch in Molina, Colo. and is mulling a decision to trim his herd of 500 Angus-Hereford-Charolais hybrids. Basic economics also worry him; he knows that he may well have to pay more later to buy replacement calves if the price per head of cattle rises from today's rock-bottom lows. But like many ranchers across the West and central plains, Currier has little choice. This year's record drought has made his operation untenable.
"This is probably the worst it's been since 1977," Currier says. "We just can't grow enough to feed the cattle ourselves."
Welcome to the new normal.
The drought has pressured ranchers across the West to sell breeding cattle, take on more debt, or seek supplemental work off the farm. Some, particularly in Texas last year during a crushingly severe drought, have even liquidated the whole ranch.
The drought has killed off much of the natural forage on grazing pastures as well as the alfalfa that Currier and other ranchers typically grow, forcing them to dig into savings to buy hay, straw, soybean supplements and other alternative feeds. Supply shortages have sent corn and soybean prices to record heights.
People who make a living off the land are no strangers to risk, whether dictated by Mother Nature, international currency fluctuations or their local banks. But scientists agree that climate change will up the ante considerably by bringing more extreme weather gyrations – searing drought one year, followed by torrential storms that can wash away cracked soil and destroy crops rather than quench their thirst.
"The longer term raises a much more vexing question," says Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union. "What climate scientists really tell us is not so much that it'll be drier and hotter…as it'll be dramatically more variable.”
That, he added, “poses real serious problems for all of agriculture."
Scrambling to adapt
Farmers may not call it climate change, or attribute it to human activity. But many are scrambling to adapt – or make themselves more resilient – to a future of greater uncertainty and risk. Their survival kit consists of a mixture of emerging cattle-breeding technology, sustainable rangeland and farmland practices, and new business plans.
In a survey conducted last year on farm and ranch managers in hard-hit southern Colorado, roughly one-quarter of respondents said they would likely leave the industry if the drought persisted into this year. The number was higher – 36 percent – among operations that included both livestock and irrigated farming. Chris Goemans, the agricultural economist at Colorado State University who led the survey, said he hasn't followed up this year with farmers.
The drought has prompted some ranchers to retire early and sell or lease the ranch, although not in noticeably large numbers, according to interviews with ranching real estate brokers.
“I’m 75 years old and my folks used to talk about the ‘30s, how the river just ran dry,” says Tom Grieve, a rancher and co-owner of Western United Realty in the town of Baggs in Wyoming’s Little Snake River Valley. “What we’ve gone through this year is pretty similar to that.”