February 9, 2003

Denver Post

Colorado Ranches in Dire Straits as Record Drought Continues

Kit Miniclier/Knight Ridder

Ordway, CO - With hundreds of Colorado cattle operations drying up and blowing away in the worst drought anyone can remember, Bill Gray is trying to hang on.

No one is behind the wheel of his big, dirty, flatbed truck as it rolls slowly across the dust-dry pasture. Instead, rancher Gray stands in the back, pushing, tugging and kicking loose big chunks of hay from a 1,400-pound bale bought in Kansas. The hay tumbles onto the parched landscape. A hungry herd of cattle lopes behind, pulling, pushing and treading on the growing trail of hay.

Gray has already sold almost half his herd because he can't afford to continue buying feed for it. He'll sell the rest if the rains don't come by the end of April.

His plight isn't unusual.

A total of 800 Colorado cattle ranches have gone out of business within the last two years, reports Lance Fretwell of Colorado Agriculture Statistics, citing the latest report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We can pretty much attribute those losses to the drought," which has been getting worse since the last good rains in 1999, Fretwell said. At the end of last year, 14,300 ranches remained in the state. He doesn't have a geographic breakdown, but everyone agrees the parched southeast is one of the hardest hit areas in the state.

"There is no feed, no grass and no rain," observed Leonard Pruett, who knows several ranchers who "are talking about liquidating - selling off their entire herds."

Statewide, about 200,000 cattle, or 20 percent, have been sold due to the drought, said Pruett, who is a veteran Colorado State University extension agent. About 50 percent of all cattle in southeast Colorado - including all or parts of Crowley, Otero, Bent, Prowers and Baca counties - already have been sold at auction, or shipped out of state, because of the drought.

The latest federal statistics show that Colorado ranked fourth nationally in the number of cattle being fed daily due to drought. Colorado was feeding 1.04 million cattle, trailing Texas, Nevada and Kansas but well ahead of the 75,000 cattle on feed in Wyoming, reports the USDA.

"Range conditions are really in bad shape: poor, very poor or extremely poor," said Jeff Tranel, an agriculture and business management economist for southeastern Colorado. "This is the worst drought Colorado has ever had. I've never seen anything this dry."

Gray, a third-generation rancher in the Arkansas Valley, agrees. "We have to buy and feed them everything they eat" because there isn't any pasture, he said. Last year he recorded about 4 inches of moisture - compared with 12 to 14 inches in a normal year. Virtually nothing is growing on his 20,000-acre ranch just north of the Arkansas River, between Ordway and Sugar City.

That's why he's out in his truck, tossing out hay for his cattle. After taking precisely three minutes to distribute the huge bale, Gray nimbly slides off the moving truck, jogs to the cab and cuts the engine.

His cattle are stretched out across the dusty plain, munching contentedly. "That's just this bunch. I've got three others," he says.

His herd has dropped from 650 to 350. Every other day he feeds this group of 109 two bales, instead of one. Each costs $90. He also feeds them a dietary supplement, which costs $350 a ton.

In good years, cattle in this area graze on their owners' pastures for eight or nine months a year. Now, all of them have been fed continuously from commercial suppliers for anywhere from 14 months to two years, explained Gray, who is second vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association.

He is using proceeds from the sale of half his herd to buy hay and dietary supplements for his remaining cattle. The law gives him a two-year tax break on drought sales of cattle. Cattlemen would like the tax break extended to two years after the rains return, so they can replace their herds first.

Gray, who sold pregnant cows for about $625 each, figures it will cost him at least $1,000 apiece to replace them because of what he expects will be a great demand for cattle as ranchers beef up their herds when the drought finally ends.

The cows he sold for slaughter as he reduced his herd went for 35 to 40 cents a pound, or $350 to $400 for a cow weighing 1,000 to 1,200 pounds.

If Gray is forced to sell the rest of his herd in May, the local county agriculture extension agent suggested he get a job in town.

"What would I do in town, be a Wal-Mart greeter?" he asks. "Who is going to hire a 51-year-old man who has worked at minimum wage all his life? I'm a dinosaur. My expertise is raising cattle, and that is the sole source of income for this ranch."

Finding a job wouldn't be easy, for Gray or any rancher in his plight, because many of the small retailers along countless rural Main Streets where former ranchers might find work are themselves going out of business. Drought-stricken ranchers and farmers have no expendable income to spend at such stores, observed Tranel, the economist.

That might mean commuting. Back East, there are manufacturing plants or other large employers within a comparatively short distance from housing, suggested Tranel.

But out West, where distances can stupefy Easterners, Gray would have to drive 120 miles a day to find a job in Pueblo, the nearest city. Herd-less ranchers and crop-less farmers living in Springfield, in the far southeast corner of the state, would have to commute six hours a day to work in Pueblo - if there was any work there, added Tranel.

All of that means Gray and his rancher peers don't know what they'll do for work should the worst happen.

For now, Gray can only hope for rain, and that next year will be easier than last on his ranch.

In addition to the cattle sales, the past few months saw the well for his son's home on the ranch go dry. The family had to drill a deeper one. Meanwhile, Bill Gray's dad, Richard Gray, died last October. The two had ranched together for 30 years. "Dad's death put the drought in perspective," Gray said mournfully. "It was the toughest thing in my life."

The Grays have been ranching since 1896, first on Mount Baldy near Rye, at what is still known as Gray's Mary Greenwood. "But he didn't like snow," so Granddad Gray came down to the Arkansas Valley to ranch, Bill Gray said.

In good years, the Grays had 1,000 head of cattle and raised 350 to 400 tons of alfalfa to feed them. Last year they managed to grow only 50 tons.

In addition to their own 20,000- acre spread, the Grays lease another 7,000 acres, which they must pay for even if the land isn't being grazed.

"This spring this pasture blew like hell. There's no way we can put cattle back here" until after rains return and a year or so has passed to revive the pasture, he said.

Gray worries about the future of ranching in Colorado. "The biggest downfall of rural people is that we don't know how to communicate" with state lawmakers and city folk, he said.

The other day he sat with three state lawmakers at a get-acquainted meal in Denver. None of the three, he recalled incredulously, had any idea where Ordway is.