Historic drought in the West is forcing ranchers to take painful measures

With no rain in sight, western ranchers are shrinking their herds.

On Andrew McGibbon’s 90,000-acre cattle ranch south  Tucson, Arizona, the West’s punishing drought isn’t just drying up pastureland and evaporating water troughs.

“We're having the death of trees like I've never seen in my lifetime. Thousands of trees are dying,” he says of species that have adapted to Arizona’s desert landscape, such as oak and mesquite.

Nearly 1,000 miles from McGibbon’s ranch, near Rio Vista, California, the drought on Ryan Mahoney’s ranch feels just as bad.

“According to my grandpa, who is 92 this year, this is the worst he’s ever seen in the Montezuma Hills,” Mahoney says. “Typical rainfall is 16 to 18 inches. We got three to five inches this year, and [the impact] is pretty drastic and dramatic.”

McGibbon and Mahoney, who both raise Angus beef cattle, have been forced to sell off parts of their herds, either to feedlots, where cattle gain weight before slaughter, or to other ranches as far east as Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, where drought hasn’t dried up pastures.

It’s one dramatic impact of the drought that is gripping the U.S. West, stretching from California to New Mexico and parts of Colorado. In the contiguous United States, more than a third of available land is used for pasture. That means more than 15 million beef cattle are trying to graze this year on drought-parched grasses, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures. Weekly USDA reports show slaughter rates up compared to this time last year, but Shayle Shagam, a livestock expert for the USDA, says that, in addition to the drought, those numbers could also reflect a catch-up in inventories from last year’s COVID-19 supply chain disruptions.

While it’s unclear how many cattle have been moved out of the West’s dry conditions, McGibbon’s and Mahoney’s stories in Arizona and California match those of ranchers in North Dakota, Utah, and Colorado. With enough eastern ranchers and foreign meat imports to supplement losses from drought, it’s unlikely consumers will see a recurrence of meat shortages. But it will take ranches in the West years to recoup the losses they’re currently sustaining.

A record-breaking heat wave is hitting the West Coast this week—Seattle is sweltering under its hottest temperatures ever—and experts expect more of them.

Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the USDA office of the chief economist, notes that in the past two decades, farmers and ranchers have had to contend with a trend toward hotter, dryer weather that scientists say is made worse by climate change. With an expectation that those conditions will continue, the way America grows its food in the West will likely change with it. Practices like heavily irrigating pasture may no longer be possible.

“The things we’ve been doing for decades just aren’t sustainable,” says Rippey.

What happens to ranches when drought strikes?  

“Drought is always this recurring challenge for ranching,” says Leslie Roche, an expert on rangeland management at the University of California, Davis. “In California, [ranchers] depend on rainfed systems. Being dependent on such a highly climate-sensitive resource makes them vulnerable.”

For ranchers to sustain their herds, they need enough grass growing in the pastures and enough water for cows to drink. The average adult cow weighs about 1,200 pounds; in one day it can eat more than 20 pounds of grass and drink up to 30 gallons of water.

Certain regions depend on water created by snow melt. If it doesn’t snow enough, it can trigger a devastating chain of events.

“If we don’t get the snowpack, it basically just starts cutting our ability to have cows through summer months,” says Joseph Fischer, the manager at Bruin Ranch in Auburn, California.

This year, “Once the snowpack started coming, it didn't get into reservoirs. It evaporated because the soil was so dry,” says Fischer.

Without enough pasture grass to feed their herds, ranchers buy more hay. But this year’s drought has stretched into hay-producing states as far east as Nebraska, and additional feed may soon be in short supply.

If they can’t feed their herds, ranchers must cull—or sell—parts of them. “From what we’ve done thus far to mitigate impacts, there’s been a really big shift in ranchers culling their herds,” says Joslyn Beard, a livestock expert at the University of Arizona.

McGibbon has already sold a third of his herd, and without summer rain, he may have to sell half of what’s left. Mahoney has sent 200 cattle to ranches in Iowa and Oklahoma.

Mahoney considers his cows lucky. “A lot of the cattle are just going to the butcher. We were really fortunate to see our cattle go and stay in production.”

The most recent major drought that plagued California ranchers lasted from 2014 to 2016. During that period, drought conditions were less widespread, and ranchers were able to easily sell cattle to ranchers in Plains states that were recovering from drought there.

That meant there wasn’t an overall decrease in what’s called the national cattle herd, but “that likely won’t be the case in this drought,” says Kenneth Tate, a rangeland expert at the University of California, Davis.

“Culling practices are [typically] for animals that are older, sicker, weaker,” says Roche. “You’re taking them out of production. During drought they cull deeper into the herd and get rid of animals they wouldn’t normally get rid of.”

Though there aren’t national or state numbers available for the increasing rate of culling from herds, Roche says, “Pretty much everyone we heard from has been culling.”

Climate change and drought

Adapting to what may come in the next few decades is something farmers are already thinking about.

“We in agriculture deal with the effects of climate change right up front. We are going to be the first ones impacted,” says Mahoney. “In the city you get some hot days and nights, but you don’t face it like you do when you’re farming, and you don’t have any feed to feed your cows, or a fire burns everything you have.”

Drought is a cyclical occurrence in Mediterranean and desert climates like those in California and Texas, but scientists say it’s undeniable that climate change is making these types of droughts more likely to occur and more extreme.

(Read more about how climate change is influencing the West’s “megadrought.”)

“Droughts are mostly natural,” says John Nielsen-Gammon, a climatologist at Texas A&M University, “but different from before because, when they occur, temperatures are higher and soil dries out faster. Climate change is changing the way drought behaves.”

For some states, like Colorado, drought has not spread with an even hand.

“We have more grass than I've ever seen [in the east]. In the western part of the state they’re in a severe drought,” says Kim Stackhouse-Lawson at Colorado State University.

“The difference in geography and ecology and what our local producers are experiencing is indicative of what we’re going to see as the climate continues to change,” says Stackhouse-Lawson.

How ranchers are adapting 

 When ranchers overgraze their pasture, it can make already challenging drought conditions worse because it prevents forage from growing and makes it harder for soil to absorb any rain that does fall.

“As much as you’re raising sheep and cows, you’re also raising grass. That’s where the value of your ranch is,” says Mahoney.

While not all farmers are convinced that climate change is caused by human activity, they’ve noticed the weather patterns they once counted on are becoming less reliable.

“I think everyone knows the patterns in which we’re receiving precipitation are much different than they used to be,” says Fischer.

In Arizona, where ranchers have always contended with dry, hot conditions, McGibbon says one of their strategies to conserve pasture is to keep cattle on a fast feeding schedule to prevent overgrazing.

“The animals are constantly moving,” he says. “Mimicking the movement of bison before we were around.”

Mahoney is also concerned about overgrazing. He spreads out his herd  to reduce stress on one portion of pasture and practices a technique known as multi-species grazing but letting cattle and sheep roam the same pasture, which promotes a more balanced ecosystem because the cattle and sheep each tend to target different grasses and shrubs. Sheep are also lighter, Mahoney adds, and unlike cattle, less likely to compact the soil.

New technology helps ranchers make use of scarce resources. Sensors monitoring soil moisture and grazing patterns give ranchers real-time data so they can move their cattle to the most optimal grazing location. Researchers are also selectively breeding cattle to better withstand heat and to forage on drought-stricken pasture.

But these techniques, meant to conserve water and grass, can only help mitigate the impacts of drought. Even though ranchers employed these methods, they were still hit hard this year.

On his ranch in Arizona, McGibbon  worries about more than just his cattle suffering from drought. Cameras mounted on cattle water  tanks scattered throughout the ranch have spotted a growing list of wild animals drinking from them,  including bears, mountain lions, deer, badgers, coyotes, and a raccoon-like animals called coatimundi. Migratory birds are also stopping to take a drink.

“The rancher was managing land and providing water for wildlife. If the rancher is gone, who provides the water to wildlife?” McGibbon asks.

Near a growing city like Tucson, McGibbon says ranchers are often feeling pressure to sell land to real estate developers, saying, “Drought is another reason for many [ranchers] to say enough is enough.”

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