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The Weekly News Source for Wyoming's Ranchers, Farmers and AgriBusiness Community

Wyoming Drought Concerns

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

By Wyoming Livestock Board

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data and Riverton National Weather Service meteorologists, conditions indicate a warming climate in Wyoming, which threatens to significantly alter spring runoff. 

Articles recently published in the Casper Star-Tribune and The Ranger state, “Much of northwest Wyoming, the Wind River Range and north central Wyoming remains in extreme drought conditions, according to the Wyoming Drought Monitor. Drought conditions have improved in the southern and southwest portions of the state, but even those areas still have a significant deficit to overcome. Despite strong snowfall in the Central Rockies, the extended 23-year drought gripping much of the West continues to stress water resources in the Colorado River Basin, which extends into southwest Wyoming.”

The state entered winter with all four major basin regions below median snowpack for this time of year, while soil moisture also remains below average for much of the state, according to the November Wyoming Hydraulic Update and Outlook published by Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS).  

Even if the state gets socked with heavy springtime snows – which typically come mid-April to mid-May – the state is likely to see an early springtime runoff season with a significant amount of moisture lost to persistently warm and dry conditions. 

Seasonal runoff has occurred earlier in the year in many river basins, posing challenges for agriculture, wildlife, recreation opportunities and other vital aspects of the state’s economy.

As droughts develop regionally, affected producers may experience increased management challenges and costs. Drought conditions require a sequence of producer actions, which could include modified pasture and water management, increased supplemental feeding, additional feed purchases and perhaps relocation or liquidation of part or all of the herd. 

Drought affects livestock in several ways. With less water feeding the natural dams and grasses, there will be reduced natural forages available in the pastures for them to consume. 

Drought-affected stock may ingest large quantities of sand and dirt, which may cause impaction of the gut. Hungry stock may ingest poisonous plants or eat excessive amounts of indigestible roughage. Combatting this may mean supplementing with hay or protein to provide adequate nutrition through the summer.

Nutritional deficiencies also have an adverse effect on conception rates, especially if adult females are thin at calving. Conception rates will first decline in lactating first-calf heifers and young ewes because they still need nutrients for growth, in contrast to mature females. Lactation increases nutrient requirements substantially. 

Continued nursing further delays a female’s return to estrus when nutritional deficiencies occur during a drought. Early weaning of calves and lambs may be the most efficient management practice available for maintaining reproductive performance when nutritional stress occurs.

Other effects drought may have on livestock are the potential for diseases such as dust pneumonia, the emergence or surfacing of spore forming bacterial pathogens such as anthrax and clostridium species, starvation, malnutrition, poor body growth and reduced feed conversion. 

In the case of sheep, there can also be effects on wool growth, reduced staple length and fiber breaks, which at market time will impact the price per pound. 

Reduced water flow, ground water and runoff can pose risks of the uptake of certain potential toxins into plants and water such as nitrates, oxalates, selenium and sulfates. These can all produce toxicity in livestock species leading to illness or death. Livestock producers should regularly assess resource conditions such as water availability, vegetation vigor and soil condition during drought periods. 

Drought also leads to increased risk of fire activity, which necessitates livestock producers formulate a plan for livestock relocation and protection should a fire occur. 

Ranchers can adjust distribution of livestock, moving or removing herds as needed and utilizing portable water troughs to improve livestock distribution to reduce the impacts on vegetation, soils and permanent water supplies during drought years. This helps protect livestock from the adverse effects of drought. 

More information regarding drought status, mitigation management efforts and assistance can be obtained from the University of Wyoming Extension, NRCS, U.S. Weather Service Drought Monitor and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency.

This article is courtesy of the Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB). The WLSB assists the state in brand recordkeeping, brand inspections, animal health and law enforcement. 

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