Drought affects Utah dairy, cattle farmers

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 1:03 PM

Jesus Lopez Jr.

LOGAN — About 300 head of cattle moved through Logan Canyon Thursday morning, making the trek to higher late-summer pastures.

Thursday’s move was the first leg of a two-day operation. The rest of the herd will move on Monday, again closing down the U.S. 89 from Temple Fork Road to the cattle guard below Twin Creeks.

“It is a big to-do because they are moving cows 3-miles down the highway,” said Chandler Mundy, Rangeland Specialist for the Uintah-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. “They went a couple of weeks earlier than last year, because of the dry weather and drought.”

For the past two years, the West has suffered through a drought, which has left pasture lands dry and limited the feed supply. Cattle ranchers nationally and in Utah are having problems with the cost of feeding their animals. Access to private pasture is at a premium and the cost of hay begins at $200 a ton.

Those extra costs are being passed down to the consumer.

One way rancher Richard Nicholas, of Bothwell, keeps costs down is by getting a permit to allow his beef cattle to graze on public land.

“You can’t afford to buy private ground for those cows to run on,” Nicholas said. “If I didn’t have that summer deal up there, I would be out of business.”

The feed problems extend to dairy farmers as well, including Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson, who is also a local dairy farmer and beef producer.

He said feed prices have more than doubled in the past three to four years. Most of the feed for his dairy operation comes from the Midwest, which has been hit hardest by the drought.

“Feed is outrageously high right now,” Gibson said. “Anybody functioning in a drought situation can’t function forever. I hope it corrects itself before we have too much heartache in the industry.”

As far as grazing, Mundy is one of those trying to help meet demand, while still caring for public resources.

Mundy said the forest service anticipated that the weather would remain hot and dry and put the cattle on the mountain early, while there was still water.

“Two years ago, we were extremely wet. Last year, we were drier than usual and this year, we are drier still,” Mundy said. “If it continues, we are going to have to make some management changes.”

Options for the Forest Service to maintain resources include shortening the grazing season and lowering the number of animals allowed to graze.

This year, cattle is scheduled to graze through the first of October, but Mundy expects permit holders will be told to take their cattle home in mid-September.

To avoid problems with beef production in the coming year, the weather will need to begin improving during the next several months.

For optimal conditions, the area will need to see fall rains to make the ground moist.

“We will see how the fall progresses,” Mundy said. “If we can see some average showers, it will help a lot.”

Next, a steady snowfall will help build up the snowpack.

Spring rains will grow the grass, and a wet summer monsoon will help freshen up the ground.

In the end, it is all up to Mother Nature.

“We hope for the best, I guess,” Mundy said.

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