He says most ranch sales he witnesses these days are recreation ranches, especially those owned by wealthy families, rather than working cattle ranches. “A lot of these guys are third- or fourth-generation ranchers,” Grieve says. “They’ve learned what it takes to withstand these blips and droughts. So they’re mostly reducing herds rather than selling the ranch.”
Still, U.S. cattle inventories last year sunk to the lowest since 1952, as ranch managers culled herds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual inventory.
This year's drought is more extensive than any since the 1950s, afflicting roughly 80 percent of agricultural land in the United States, and the USDA has designated 2,186 counties in 41 states as disaster areas due to drought. Losses, generally measured in crop insurance claims, won't be known for several more months, the agency said.
Some ranchers, including Currier in western Colorado, are diversifying by offering hunting and fishing tours, or opening a dude ranch or event center for weddings. The latter may appeal especially to ranch managers whose grassy pastureland is becoming drier and overrun by woody plants, a process triggered by climate change. Other cattlemen, aiming to trim input costs, put their cattle on a diet – feeding them less protein-intensive alfalfa grass, for instance, and more straw, corn stalks and protein supplements. But, as Currier, notes, it's not as nutritious. "It's like force-feeding cows something they don't really like to eat."
The flower problem
Then there’s the flower problem: New cattle from outside the region can take a long time to adjust to local forage. For instance, cattle moved from east Texas to Las Cruces, N.M. took more than a year to start munching on four-winged saltbush and other local shrubs that dominate the local menu, according to Derek Bailey, an animal and rangeland specialist at New Mexico State University.
Longer-term adaptation strategies focus on genetics. Advancements in genomics are converging with environmental changes to spur researchers to breed animals with features especially suitable to hotter and drier climates. One example is matching the floppy-eared Brahman from India with black Angus that most commonly roams U.S. rangelands. Brahman meat is not as tasty as Angus, but blend their genes and you create "the best of both worlds in drought conditions," says Bailey.
Grain and other crop producers are in a bind, resorting to a mix of time-tested and cutting-edge farming techniques to grow more with less water. Although dryland producers – those who grow crops without irrigation – are more vulnerable in times of drought, many irrigators are gazing warily at dropping water tables.
Testing new practices
Curtis Sayles is a dryland farmer in the tiny town of Siebert on Colorado's eastern plain. He hasn't plowed his 5,000 acres of winter wheat, corn, sunflower and millet in years – a practice that builds soil moisture and cuts wind erosion. A downside is that most practitioners apply more herbicides to keep the weeds out. Sayles is experimenting with cover crops, including radishes, soybeans and chickpeas, in between or simultaneous with cash crops. He hopes this method, which has proved successful in wetter regions, will free him from using chemicals.
For entrepreneurial farmers like Sayles, the key to surviving intense droughts and other vagaries of a changing climate lies in testing new practices and abandoning old ones. While large cattle operators are trimming their herds, Sayles and his wife are buying more steer, filling a niche for high-end local beef.