Healthy green grass is a welcome sight for cattle ranchers in Southwest Colorado who have faced an exceptional drought, low prices and a harsh winter.
For Brad Fassett, owner of Fassett Hay and Cattle in La Plata County, green fields make it “a whole lot easier to get out of bed” in the morning compared with last season.
The drought and high hay prices last summer made it expensive to feed cattle, and many ranchers culled their herds. Ranchers also lost more calves than normal to heavy snows this winter.
The one-two punch of a drought and wet winter has been followed by low prices, making ranching operations less profitable, said Dr. Gerald Koppenhafer, a veterinarian and Mancos-area rancher.
“It’s been a pretty tough year, year-and-a-half for local ranchers, and prices aren’t likely to help us this year, either,” he said.
Many small operators who have only a few cow-calf pairs are likely to give up, Koppenhafer said. He added it will take several years to rebuild larger herds.
“This is not something you bounce back from in one year,” he said.
Despite challenges, the industry is profitable, and some cattle producers plan to replenish their herds, in part, because of the quality grass and forage, said Terry Frankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.
“We’ll see some modest expansion,” he said.
Dealing with droughtDuring last year’s drought, Koppenhafer said, many operators thinned their herds because summer pastures had weak grass growth and operators didn’t have enough hay to get them through winter.
Farm and ranch management consultant Bob Bragg said ranchers mostly sold off cattle that were producing smaller calves or those that were hard to manage.
“The culling didn’t go into the heart of the herd in most cases,” he said.
Some ranchers sent cattle to Kansas or Wyoming to maintain their herds and brought them back in fall, but that kind of management can hurt profitability, Koppenhafer said.
Ranchers often pay for pasture and management while cattle are outside the area.
Fassett said he sent some cattle to eastern Colorado from August to February. It didn’t make financial sense to feed them locally, but he wanted to maintain his cattle’s genetic lines.
“That was one of our ad hoc management tools we used to get through,” he said.
He counts himself as fortunate because he didn’t sell off a lot of his herd, he said.
Calving in the snowKoppenhafer said spring’s mortality among calves was about double the normal rate for most ranchers because of colder-than-normal temperatures February through April. If calves couldn’t be sheltered from storms, the heavy snowfalls contributed to higher-than-normal calf mortality.
“Anytime we get weather like this spring – it was cold, it snowed, it rained – you’re going to have problems,” Koppenhafer said.
A normal spring sees four or five relatively warm days that break up the storms, but this spring seemed to bring storms one after the other, and that puts a strain on the calves, Koppenhafer said.
He estimated normal losses during calving season are about 3%, but this year was about 6%.
During calving season, Fassett’s empty hay barns turned into emergency shelter for cows and calves to keep them out of the weather, he said.
Some producers without tractors reached their cattle in the deep snow and lost some of their calves to the weather, said Beth LaShell, coordinator of the Old Fort in Hesperus.
At the Old Fort, staff saved 20 calves in March by loading them into a trailer and putting it into an equipment shop, she said.
“That was the night we had freezing rain. We just don’t think they would have lived,” she said.
Turning a profitKoppenhafer estimates cattle prices are between $10 to $15 less per hundredweight than last year, which means ranchers are getting from $65 to $75 less per head than in 2018. The lower prices come at a time when they need to buy cattle to rebuild their herds.
Flooding in the Midwest might further hurt profitability.
Koppenhafer said Midwest floods and a wet spring have delayed corn planting to the point that he expects a vastly reduced corn yield this year. That creates a spike for cattle feed, which lowers the price ranchers get for their cattle.
“Corn makes up the main feed at feedlots, and when the price of corn goes up, the price of cattle goes down. If you pay more for feed, feedlots pay less for cattle. They know their margins,” Koppenhafer said.
The status of Midwest corn likely means lower cattle prices throughout 2019, he said.
Frankhauser said the expansion into international markets, such as China and parts of Europe, could affect cattle prices because ranchers rely on strong exports to keep prices up.
“We don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it does seem to be on the horizon,” he said.
On average, $300 of product from every cow in the U.S. is sold abroad, and $1,500 is sold domestically, he said.
While the market seems more stable than it has been in recent years, it is impossible to know what the future holds, Fassett said. But right now, the quality forage is on the producers’ side.
“I have got a lot of happy cows right now. ... They are in awfully good shape physically,” Fassett said.