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U.S. Ranchers Struggle to Adapt to Climate Change

Cow whisperers, gene jockeys and the old-guard wrangle the lingering impacts to farms and ranches from this year's drought—and brace for a less predictable future
Echo Valley Ranch Cattle Drive



Flickr/Echo Valley Ranch

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. 

Pressured ranchers
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.”

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. 

Diversifying operations
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.

Urban shoppers willing to pay a premium for meat they deem safe and natural means business “has actually blossomed in the tough economic times," he says.

"Really, we're in a dark room just feeling our way around here," Sayles adds, before heading back out into the wind-swept fall afternoon on the edge of the Great Plains. "But you've got to get out of your comfort zone and try new things, especially now."

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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