Even In A Desert, Drought Spells Trouble For Ranchers

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In northern Nevada, a place famous for its wide, open spaces and expansive cattle operations, ranchers are in a bind due to the historic drought.

Much of the state is desert, so when people talk about drought, they're really talking about the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. It's at barely 20 percent of average.

This is a huge concern for farmers and ranchers like Julie Wolf, because the mountains store the snow that melts and feeds rivers and reservoirs. These bodies of water then allow the desert to bloom with grass and alfalfa for her cattle.

The drought also means a lot less alfalfa will be grown here. Northern Nevada is one of the country's most important hay-growing regions.

"That's a big concern, if it's not grown here we have to bring it in, or the cattle have to go out," Wolf says.

This is the financial dilemma facing almost every rancher from Nevada to California and Oregon, as one of the worst droughts in a century continues its stubborn grip. The timing also couldn't be worse. The cattle industry is just starting to slowly rebound from a prolonged drought in the largest cattle-producing regions in the U.S. — Texas and the southern plains.

"Now we're in the midst of the drought and we're debating, do we sell cows, do we keep cows, do we have enough places to graze our own cows?" Wolf says.

'Unprecedented' Drought

Much of Nevada is going into its third year of severe drought, a situation that's unprecedented even for an arid region accustomed to dry spells, according to Ken Tate, professor with the University of California-Davis Cooperative Extension Service.

Tate says cattle ranchers are good at adapting. He's helping many try to squeeze out as much irrigation efficiency as possible, and to manage range lands so the vegetation is more drought-tolerant.

But there's only so much that can be done.

"There are not scientific answers to some of these problems. Sometimes there's no solution for not enough rain," he says.

The most likely scenario come spring, according to Tate, is that ranchers will be downsizing. Much like they did on the southern plains. That will have huge economic consequences for many family ranches, because it translates into a big drop in annual income.

Beef Prices Soar

There's another direct economic consequence, this time for consumers. Beef prices were already at record highs. Supply is down due to that drought in the southern plains and a freak blizzard last fall in the Dakotas.

However, Joe Glauber, chief economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says those prices can't all be blamed on the droughts.

"Feed costs themselves have been very high, and that has to do with the drought and more to do with the fact that we've had tight feed markets over the last five years," he says.

It's too early to predict how much more expensive beef may get, assuming the drought in Nevada and other Western states persists.

Everything will become clearer as spring approaches and ranchers like Julie Wolf begin to make some tough decisions.

For the Wolf family, it's personal. Julie and her husband Dan have spent the past 26 years building up their herd to what it is today — 200 head of cattle. If more rain and snow doesn't come soon, the couple say they're considering selling at least half of their herd.

"It affects what we grow, how many cattle we have, how many people we can employ," says Dan, whose family bought the ranch outside Fallon, Nev., in 1949.

The family business is at stake, Julie adds. "It changes whether or not our daughters can come back and ranch with us."

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