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Spring leaves no moisture: Forage resource concerns heighten

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

As spring turns to summer across the Cowboy State, reports of the lack of spring precipitation in lower elevations and a shortage of snowpack in mountain areas echo from corner to corner of the state.
    According to the May 14 Wyoming Water Supply Outlook from the National Weather Service (NWS) in Riverton, above normal mountain temperatures and below average mountain precipitation trends continued in April.
    “These trends have continued to drastically lower the snow water equivalents (SWEs) in the Wyoming mountain snowpack during April and into early May. Mountain snowpack across Wyoming has lowered to 45 to 60 percent of normal by early May.  Snowpack ‘water’ numbers at the beginning of May were the highest across northern Wyoming – varying between 70 to 85 percent of normal. SWEs across the rest of Wyoming varied from 30 to 40 percent of normal,” reported NWS.
    As of May 14, Natural Resources Conservation Service Water Supply Specialist Lee Hackleman said Wyoming sat at 29 percent of average for the state, and that was dropping fast.
    “Last year we were at 204 percent, and rising fast,” he noted. “All irrigators will likely be short this year, with the direct diversion guys really suffering, depending on their priority rights.”
    Thanks to prior wet years, the NWS does report that reservoir storages across Wyoming continue to be above average at 105 to 120 percent of normal in early May.
No more growth
    “For those of us at a high altitude, the data shows that, since we didn’t get any precipitation in April, we are in serious trouble,” says Mike Smith, who works with rangeland management in the Department of Ecosystem and Science Management in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at UW. “The average for Laramie is 1.1 inches of moisture in the spring, and we got .58. For here, this is probably as close to as bad as it ever was back in the 2002 to 2007 drought.”
    Smith recommends that livestock producers look at their own precipitation averages to get a feel for how close they are to that average and then think about the situation from a forage production standpoint.
    “As it stands today, we’ve got most of the growth we’ll get,” says Smith of range conditions. “If we were to get more precipitation right away we could probably produce a little more than we have right now – things could get better. All is not lost yet, but nevertheless, the long-term forecasts are not good. I, for one, wouldn’t bet on more precipitation coming.”
Managing livestock
    So what is the best management strategy going into a dry summer? Smith says many in the field of ag economics did a number of analyses during the last drought period.
    “It’s usually better and more economical to get rid of anything that you can in the way of livestock before you start cutting into your capital, or your main cowherd,” says Smith.
    “If you’ve got yearlings, there are two things to do: sell part of them, or plan on marketing the whole bunch much earlier than you probably would like to,” he continues. “An August sale date, instead of September or October, would be an option.”
    Of the cowherd, Smith recommends getting rid of all dry cows right away.
    “That is a money-making proposition, because the longer you wait, the less value they have. Even if you have a cow you’re not really fond of, but she has a calf, it might be a good time to get rid of her,” he says. “Don’t cull what you really love, but you could certainly think about getting rid of those you’re not really in love with.”
    Smith mentions early weaning as another management technique for a drought year.
    “Especially if you calved in March, which is relatively early this day and age, Aug. 1 would be a good target to think about weaning,” he says. “After weaning, you could look at backgrounding, or selling them as lightweight calves.”
Strong market expected
    Speaking of cattle markets this summer, UW Extension Educator Bridger Feuz says, “Right now the fundamentals of the cattle market would suggest that we should have a fairly strong market through summer and fall. There are certainly events that can change those things, but right now the fundamentals would say that we have a decent demand for the product, and a restricted supply.”
    “If the range resources are not available, certainly marketing calves early may be an option. The cull cow market also continues to be really strong, so if you need to cull heavier to free up your pasture, we’re seeing all-time high cull cow prices. They’re still in the $80 per hundredweight range, so it’s definitely a time to consider marketing cull cows,” says Feuz, who specializes in profitable and sustainable ag systems.
    “When we have strong prices, there’s always a tendency to hold on until fall and see if you can get the top of the market, but producers should remember, especially in times of drought, that sometimes managing risk is the best strategy. When they can lock in a good price for their calves, it’s always a good time to sell,” adds Feuz.
The economics
    “The bottom line is that, for the most part, selling animals will be more economical than trying to keep them and buy hay,” says Smith.
    UW Extension Production Economist John Ritten completed a study a few years ago that showed that, if the price of cattle was relatively cheap, and a producer was fairly certain it would go up, there might be some value in feeding some hay to keep the cattle through the summer.
    “But, that does not appear to be the situation this year,” says Smith. “If you’re a direct flow irrigator, like everybody on the Laramie River, you’ll have to depend on what little you get, so there’s considerable reason to expect the hay crop won’t be nearly as good this year as it was last year, and last year turned out to be expensive hay because it was so cool and so late. This year will be not so good because there’s no water.”
    “From the standpoint of rangeland forage production, once we get into June we have what we’re going to have,” states Smith. “This year, I don’t know if we’ll even make it to the first of June before it starts to curl up.”
    Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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