Livestock producers are feeling the effects of drought at an intensifying rate.
On the heels of two sparse rain years, pastures are drying up and herds might follow suit if the trend continues into next year.
Fourth-generation Eagle Point rancher Ron Anderson figures plenty of his fellow ranchers are in a world of hurt.
“We had no snowpack to speak of in comparison to what we used to,” Anderson said. “So when the snow’s gone, you know the runoff slows down. If you’re in the right place, you still get some runoff. There are places in Oregon where once that snow is gone, they don’t get nothing. If we don’t get a wet winter, or a lot of snow this year, then we’re really in for it. That could be a disaster.”
Anderson said it is reminiscent of the climate shift in the late 1970s.
“If you’re not in the right place, you can’t irrigate,” Anderson said. “You might only get one or two irrigations, well that don’t grow any feed, so that makes it difficult. You take a dry year on dry-land farming, you might get nothing.”
While herd sizes have remained stable over the past decade, they’re much smaller than they were 40 years ago, Anderson said. At the same time, there are fewer acres devoted to hay and feed production.
With pastures drying up this summer, farmers and ranchers resort to buying hay, more than likely from outside of the Rogue Valley.
“People will have to buy some hay to survive this drought,” Anderson said. “The price is pretty high right now compared to last year ... good alfalfa will be $200 and something a ton.”
The Klamath Basin has long been an option, but that’s not a given this year.
“There was quite a little rain damage there on the first cutting,” he said.
Anderson is among the cattlemen whose herds graze locally, then are moved across the state line in the winter.
“There’s worse drought in California than there is here,” Anderson said.
Last week, Jackson County livestock producers gained eligibility to apply for 2018 Livestock Forage Disaster Program benefits for small grain, native pasture and improved pasture.
The program provides compensation for producers who suffer grazing losses for covered livestock due to drought on privately owned or leased land, or fire on federally managed land.
“We’re so far behind on water that we won’t catch up,” said Phillip Morton, local executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, which administers the disaster relief program. “But if we don’t have a good fall, winter and spring going into next year and the rain stops in February like it did this year, it’s going to be much worse.”
The lack of ready forage and high cost of hay could hit hard, Morton said.
“Local herds disappear,” he said. “Producers can’t afford to feed them, and it becomes cost-prohibitive to feed your herds, so folks start selling off cattle. We’ll see less livestock in the county, and producers will get a setback in their herd development. Of course, if a lot of cattle start showing up on market, the natural thing is for prices to come down.”
Until the most recent farm bill was passed, the Farm Service Agency awaited a presidential declaration. Now, the agency follows the U.S. Drought Monitor. Adjacent counties were previously included, so if Klamath County had a dry year, Jackson County was eligible.
While the drought assistance is welcome to livestock owners, it’s not a sure thing.
“They’re usually pretty good at helping you fill out the paperwork. Then you’ve got to wait and see if there are funds available, passed by Congress, where it goes and how much,” Anderson said.
Often it turns into a waiting game.
“The biggest complaint I hear is these guys meticulously fill out the forms and they never hear anything,” said Applegate Valley farmer Warren Merz.
“When you figure all the farmers trying to raise dryland hay crops, or dryland grain,” Anderson said, “you’ve got the irrigated crops, so they’re not quite so bad, as long as you don’t run out of irrigation water in these districts.”
While this isn’t the worst summer in his recollection, John Dimick of Eagle Point said the string of dry summers is taking a toll, and wildfire smoke is creating additional woes.
“The smoke is heavy enough that the second-cutting hay crop is not growing,” Dimick said. “Those guys that have actually cut some hay have had a real hard time getting it dry, because of the lack of direct sunlight. Pastures are not growing like they should be, so if you are a dryland pasture guy, you’re in big trouble. There are some people that are really hurting for feed because it’s so dry. There’s just not a lot of green grass growing out there.”