Extensive drought is thinning cattle herds
Five years of drought have dried up the food supply for Jefferson County cattle and dairy cows.
Shutting off the lifeline
"We are going to see a lot of ranchers go out of business," says Trent Stewart. "We could see some in Jefferson County, especially the 100 head outfits and smaller."
Stewart owns Central Oregon Livestock Auction, the auction yard south of Madras. With his other business, Auctioneers LLC, he auctions cattle all over the country.
He says a lot of factors put pressure on people who raise cattle, but the drought scorching the West forces ranchers to sell their cattle earlier and lighter.
"I think we're going to be 30 to 45 days earlier, in some cases more," says Stewart. "Shutting the water off in a lot of locations, including Jefferson County, has made the cost of hay production substantially higher, probably 25% higher, at least."
Shutting off the water shuts off the lifeline to huge investments for anyone handling livestock.
"When people see a cattle truck going down the highway," says Stewart, "there's $80,000 worth of cattle on every one of them."
It's the water
The way things are going, Jos Poland says he'll probably have to sell off half of his 260 cows. Poland runs an organic dairy in Jefferson County. He says he's having his worst year in 35 years of dairy farming.
Hay is scarce. Grain prices are high. Milk is plentiful.
He couldn't grow enough food for his cows because he had only enough water to irrigate half of his acreage. A ton of hay that cost him $240 last year now costs $300.
"I had 120 acres of triticale peas that never did anything and have been a total waste because I had to keep my water for my pastures," says Poland. "About half of my pastures are dying right now."
Poland has already sold off some of his non-milking young stock, he says "to get ahead of the curve."
He can't afford to feed his cows, and he can't afford not to.
"You can't stop feeding cows," says Poland. "Your production will suffer."
It costs $2,500 to raise a calf to a mature cow, and Poland says it takes about three years of milking that cow to pay back that cost.
Selling off the cows is selling off his investment, and it's not a good time to sell.
"Once they know I have to sell cows because of the drought, they know they don't have to give me a great price," says Poland. "Especially since there's plenty of organic milk and conventional milk on the market right now."
He'd prefer to sell his cows to another organic dairy farmer. At last resort, he'd sell them as organic beef.
This drought has hung on for five years, and Poland doesn't see it ending any time soon.
"If this thing goes on too long, I might be done with the dairy business," says Poland, "after 35 years of farming."
And it all comes down to water.
"The farmer is not the end user of the water," says Poland. "The people that buy our products, that buy our milk, or that buy our carrots, they are the end user of the water."
Selling off and cutting back
John Riley pastures his cattle near Prineville. He buys cattle at 550 pounds and sells them at 900 pounds.
"Because of the shortness of water, the pastures haven't grown as well," says Riley, "and we haven't been able to keep as many on there as we normally do."
Riley has already sold 70 of his 400 head earlier than he wanted to. "I would have made $50 a head more in a normal year because I would have kept them to get those 50 pounds on them," says Riley.
He put 140 head in the feed lot earlier than usual.
"I was running out of grass. So, they're in the feed lot until my contract date in September." And when that contract date comes up, Riley doesn't expect to make much on those cattle, if at all. He hopes to break even.
Looking ahead to next year, Riley says he's cutting back, running only less than 75% of what he'd usually run.
No feed at the feedlot
"Normally, we would feed about 4,000 calves all through the winter," says JoHanna Symons. "We can't feed one single calf this winter."
Jeremy and JoHanna Symons have three branches to their Jefferson County business: the farm, the cow-calf pastures and the feedlot.
The water shortage has cut their farm business in half, taken away a third of their feed lot business, and squeezed their cow-calf operation to the bare minimum.
"One pasture that normally lasts a month," says Symons, "is only lasting a week and a half."
Fortunately, the Symons anticipated a dry year and are running only the number of cows and calves their pastures can support.
"Our farm produces enough hay to feed all the cattle that go through our system each year," says Symons. "But because we are not able to farm the majority of our fields, we are short 1,500 tons of hay."
They're turning away business from their feedlot to other feedlots who are also turning business away.
Normally, Jefferson County hay ships around the country. This year, hay is scarce in Jefferson County and throughout the West.
A way of life
"If there's no grass for the cow to eat, you can't run as many head," says Sammee Green, who raises cattle and runs a feedlot with her husband, Tony. She says as bad as this year has been, the next few years look even worse. "Half our land is already fallow. Next year's expected to be even half of that."
The Greens pasture their cattle in Scappoose. "It's really going to affect us when we come home and we know how much hay we can feed this winter. That's when we'll have to start deciding how many head we're going to keep."
The Greens feel hit from all sides. Years of drought have depleted the aquifer. Reserving water for endangered species has reduced the meager supply to a trickle. Packers aren't paying competitive prices for their meat.
The future looks bleak, but the Greens aren't giving up.
"It's a way of life. Yes, we want to do it to make money, but it's a true passion that we enjoy," says Green. "And we want to raise our children in this lifestyle. We think it instills really good values."
Echo of national trends
From the auctioneer platform, Trent Stewart sees the national trends. "Not only drought, and fires that have never been this big, and grasshoppers eating everybody out, taking all the feed away from the cattle."
On top of the plagues of nature, Stewart says ranchers aren't getting a fair price for their meat. "You've got a packing industry that is made up of so few there isn't enough competition in it to create enough of a market for a finished product."
He cannot recommend a future in cattle ranching.
"I couldn't tell you somebody that's 25 years old right now in the cattle industry," says Stewart. "Isn't that horrible?"
Unless the industry changes and livestock producers get better prices, Stewart predicts more ranchers will leave the business. Consumers may see less beef on the shelves at higher prices.
"We should be very concerned about our nation's protein supply," says Stewart.
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