Despite rains over the weekend and a thunderstorm on Monday, Tooele County has seen an exceptionally dry year that has taken a toll on many local ranchers’ operations.
Extreme drought conditions have forced many of the county’s ranchers to pull their livestock off their summer ranges early and buy hay they would normally grow themselves. Leland Hogan, a Tooele rancher and president of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, said the problem is critical.
“If we get rain through the rest of the summer periodically it will improve soon, but we’re just about to the point where there isn’t any more availability,” he said. “A lot of people will have to sell their livestock because they won’t be able to feed them. More cattle will go to market early, and more will be sold than normal.”
Hogan said cattle having to leave their summer ranges early will put more pressure on the market to supply feed, and prices will continue to be driven higher.
“We’re in an extreme drought,” Hogan said. “We had to pull our livestock off our summer range early, and our first crop of hay was about 50 percent of what it normally is.”
Darrell Johnson, a rancher in Rush Valley, said the drought is hurting his operation as well.
“We’ve just run our irrigation water at about 20 percent of what our normal would be all summer,” he said. “My neighbor monitors our local rainfall. As of a week ago Sunday, we’ve only had 5.33 inches of rain here since last October.”
Johnson has been running his irrigation water less in order to conserve it, and he’s focused the water on his best alfalfa. He has some crop insurance available to him, but he won’t know if he needs to use it until the end of the season.
“We don’t know yet what kind of losses there will be,” he said.
Johnson’s first cutting of hay this season yielded about 20 percent of what he normally harvests.
“Compared to last year, it was probably not even a third,” he said. “We concentrated the water we did have on our very best alfalfa. We also planted a lot of oats, but we had to let about two-thirds just burn up because we didn’t have enough water. There was nothing we could do.”
So far, Johnson hasn’t had to pull his livestock off the range early because he was able to carry over some feed from last season.
“I think we’ll get along all right this year,” he said. “We don’t feel like we’ll run out of feed, and we’ve bought hay knowing that our crops are short. If we have another bad year, then we’ll have to liquidate some livestock.”
Jim Ekker, a rancher in Vernon, said his first cutting of the season had less than 50 percent of what his first cutting last year yielded. On one of his fields, he harvested 36 bales this year compared to 73 last year during his first cutting.
“The [Vernon] reservoir will soon be empty, and we’ll be out of water there,” he said. “We also had a lot of frost this year. We were at 29 degrees on June 10, and it was freezing for a few nights before that.”
Ekker said the drought on the range is the worst, especially because last year was a banner year for moisture.
“I usually don’t start having to feed them hay until about the first of November, but I will be feeding them hay about the first of September this year,” he said. “I don’t have much pasture left. I have a month to six weeks until there won’t be anything left to eat.”
Scott Livingston, manager of Vernon Utah Livestock — a ranch that raises cows and provides meat to the poor as part of the LDS church’s welfare system — said the drought conditions have dried up the aquifer that makes the springs his cows drink out of flow.
“The cows are having to travel a lot further than in the past for water and it’s affecting their health and the calves’ health,” he said. “The calves are looking very poor because they have to travel for water.”
In addition, summer range grasses have already turned yellow, Livingston said, which means his cows aren’t getting much protein.
“The cows are starving, which means the calves are starving,” he said. “The overall weight of the calves is a lot lower than it has been in the past. We’ll have to start feeding them hay in September.”
Livingston said purchasing hay at higher rates is not ideal, but because of extreme drought conditions across the state, he doesn’t have much of a choice. He plans to survive the winter by paying for hay and hopes for better conditions next year.
“We’re going to try to avoid selling cows at all costs,” he said. “We want to see if we can make it through this year. We’ve held about 1,000 head of mother cows for the last four years, and we want to continue to hold them.”
Jason Heward, manager of Erda Crops Project — a farm that grows wheat and corn for the LDS church’s welfare system — said the drought this year hasn’t immediately affected his crops because he had some reserve water left over from last year’s wet weather conditions. However, the heat and wind have taken a toll.
“I grow winter wheat and it needs cool, wet springs, but we had heat and no rain,” he said. “It’s not going to amount to much this year. I can already tell it’s not going to yield very well. The drought will affect us in years to come if we continue to stay dry. We’re just barely keeping up now.”
Heward grows about 400 acres of wheat and 400 acres of corn. So far, his corn is faring a little better than his wheat because it responds well to high temperatures. However, the windy conditions have contributed to drying the crops out. Weeds have also been a problem.
“The weeds have been hard to kill. They don’t lose their moisture and they like the heat,” he said. “That might hurt production as well.”
Hogan said it’s best to use timed sprinklers, water at night and use hand-lines for irrigation. This provides more control of the water. Crops that are faring the best in Utah this year, according to the USDA, are barley, corn and oats. The crop faring the worst is winter wheat.
The United States Department of Agriculture issued a declaration last week to assist ranchers and farmers during extreme drought conditions. Tooele County is one of more than 1,000 counties in 26 states that has been named a natural disaster area because of extreme drought conditions that have affected crop production and livestock this year. The declaration paves the way for farmers and ranchers across the nation to apply for between $38 million and $39 million in aid.
Through the declaration, the federal government will streamline the process for farmers and ranchers to apply for government disaster help. It will also lower the interest rate on emergency loans from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent and will reduce penalties for grazing livestock on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands normally set aside for conservation. According to the Farm Service Agency, there are 180,000 acres of CRP lands in Utah. However, none of these lands have been approved to allow grazing for livestock as of Monday, according to the USDA.
Most local ranchers don’t feel like the declaration will provide much assistance.
“It only makes the money available if you can qualify for a loan,” Hogan said. “Not a lot of people will be able to take advantage of the lower interest rate because it doesn’t put you in a situation where it’s economically feasible for you to pay it back.”
Hogan used the example of a dairy farmer who always needs feed for his dairy cows. When there is a drought, it decreases the amount of feed available and drives the prices higher. If the rancher is making below production costs on the milk he sells, it’s difficult for him to borrow money to buy feed for his cows.
“The economics of the declaration just don’t work,” Hogan said. “If it was a small disaster in just one area, it would work, but we’ve got a disaster that’s widespread. Feed costs are escalating. Economically it doesn’t work.”
Johnson agreed with Hogan and said the low-interest loans don’t look like they’ll help ranchers much.
“The difference between what the government calls a low interest rate and what the banks are offering these days isn’t that different,” he said.
Ekker said he was able to carry over some feed from last year because it was an excellent growing year. Because of this, he doesn’t have a need to apply for a low-interest loan to purchase feed, but he feels like the program might be necessary for some.
“It can undoubtedly help a lot of producers to have that money available, but interest is pretty low everywhere you look now,” he said. “The corn crop back East is in jeopardy, so hay and feed prices will soar.”