Dry weather, high feed prices forcing ranchers to sell cows, calves early

Rees Potter approaches a herd of calves as he tries to cut one that doesn’t belong in that lot during the livestock auction Wednesday at the Western Slope Cattlemen’s Livestock Auction in Loma. Ranchers are selling their calves earlier than usual this year because of the lingering effects of the drought.

Rees Potter, left, and Bill Martin of the Western Slope Cattlemen’s Liverstock Auction separate a calf from the rest of the heard to auction in the next lot during Wednesday’s cattle auction in Loma. Ranchers are selling their calves earlier than usual this year due to the lingering effects of the drought.

Ranchers and buyers in straw hats and ball caps watch as calves in the ring are auctioned off to the highest bidder at the Western Slope Cattlemen’s Livestock Auction in Loma.

The nods were subtle and the gestures understated by ranchers at the weekly livestock auction in Loma. But their mere presence this early in the selling season revealed a troubling trend in the cattle-raising this year.

The nasty drought being felt nationwide has put ranchers in a real pinch, and many are having to make the hard choice to sell their cows and calves much earlier than expected.

“We shouldn’t see any calves this early, and we’ve already sold some 1,500 that shouldn’t probably come until October or November,” said Bill Martin, co-partner and manager at the Western Slope Cattlemen’s Livestock Auction, 1369 12 1/2 Road. “Several people have been calling saying they’re coming in to sell in the next couple of weeks.”

Dan Varner is owner and operator of the Delta Sales Yard, and he said he’s never seen selling this early in his 16 years of ownership.

“Just in my little sale barn, I bet I’ve sold 1,000 calves that I shouldn’t be seeing for another month and a half,” he said Thursday after a sale.

Moving the traditional selling schedule up into August and selling off animals that would normally be kept and raised are trends indicative of the pressures ranchers are facing this year.

It’s a chain of events that can be traced to the price of feed for animals — specifically, hay.

Hay that cost between $100 and $150 a ton last year is priced at more than $300 this season. For ranchers already looking at slim profit margins, that price makes hay feeding incredibly challenging. That means they’re keeping fewer animals through the winter, when hay feeding is the only option.

“I think a lot of people are really under the gun — whether they’re going to be able to hang on to their mother cows,” Martin said.

If cows and calves aren’t being fed hay, they’re grazing pasture, and many of the ranchers in western Colorado lease forage habitat in the high country through the summer. But even that’s problematic this year because of the drought, according to Varner.

He tells the story of someone he knows who this year put 100 head less than usual on a pasture near Collbran, which traditionally feeds many more cattle well into November. They’re having to go fetch them next week, he said.

Ranchers have also been known to ship cattle to graze in wheat pastures in nearby states like Kansas, but that’s nearly impossible this year based on conditions.

“This year, a lot of those alternatives are not very good because the drought is so widespread,” said Rod Sharp, who helps educate ranchers as an agriculture economist with the Colorado State University Extension Office in Grand Junction. “There are some real choices that they have to make when there isn’t forage for animals.”

Mat Turnbull operates a cow-calf and stocker operation in Hotchkiss and Carbondale, and he was among the early sellers Wednesday in Loma.

“It looks like this is probably the beginning of a fairly large sell-off,” Turnbull said. “We wouldn’t normally have (sold early) if we thought conditions were going to improve.”

“Usually you’d be in here in October or November with the same cattle,” he said.

Greg Gipp’s family has operated Buzzard Creek Ranch east of Collbran for 47 years, and he was getting in on the early selling Wednesday as well.

“We felt that with the drought pressure, we would be short of hay, short of pasture,” Gipp said. “We decided to go early this year because people are going to be coming off the mountain, and that will force the prices down after Labor Day.”

As for how many animals he plans to keep through the upcoming winter, Gipp said, “I’m very fortunate that I don’t have to sell them all.”

He said he’ll keep his replacement heifers — they’re critical to maintaining a herd — and also his lighter steer calves, which he plans to sell off in April.

Turnbull is in a similar position.

“We’ll keep the good cows, the cows that are younger and have better genetics,” he said. “And sell off everything that is older or that we don’t want to carry through the winter.”

With hay prices tripling, that’s a decision that was essentially made for him, it seems.


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