Ray Sessler sized up the prospects Tuesday for the summer and the seven fields where he cultivates hay to feed his 800 head of cattle in winter.
Drought this year in Crook County means Ochoco Creek may soon run dry, shortening the growing season for Sessler and other ranchers in the high country. Last year was a low yield, and if this year disappoints again, Sessler may have to buy more hay to bolster his reserve. Already in demand and selling for $160 to $240 a ton depending on the variety, hay is a rancher’s single biggest expense.
“So the bottom line is, if we have another poor hay crop, then that’s going to be really expensive,” he said.
Drought, afflicting broad parts of the West, contributes in part to ranchers’ costs. Those costs add to the price consumers pay for beef, now at an all-time high. The price of corn — which is fed to cattle in feed lots — as well as the demand for U.S. beef in other countries and the smallest U.S. beef herd in 60 years also contribute to the high cost of beef. The retail value of U.S. Department of Agriculture choice-grade beef climbed to $5.36 a pound in March. The same grade cost $4.91 a pound in March 2013.
Drought also impacts the environment on which cattle graze. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service asked ranchers this year to keep an eye on conditions on their leased public grazing lands. No formal action to reduce the number of livestock on public lands is under consideration. However, ranchers could be asked to delay their grazing or remove their cattle early if the drought inhibits the growth of grass on those lands.
“We’re hoping we can work with permitees on a case-by-case basis, based on what’s best for the land and what their needs are,” said Michelle McSwain, assistant field manager for the BLM Prineville District.
Ranchers like Sessler, who operates his MS Ranch above the Ochoco Reservoir and irrigates his hay crop with water from Ochoco Creek, will feel the drought first. Snowpack in the Crooked River drainage is nonexistent in places, meaning the water in Ochoco Creek could disappear sometime around July.
“Those folks are gonna have the hardest time,” said Julie Koeberle, a snow hydrologist for the National Resources Conservation Service. “If people don’t have access to reservoir water, if we don’t have a lot of snow to feed those streams naturally, there’s nothing to really boost those stream flows in the summer.”
Drought in Central Oregon ranges from severe in southern Deschutes and Crook counties to moderate in their northern reaches and in Jefferson County, according to the Oregon Water Resources Department. Gov. John Kitzhaber declared a drought emergency March 20 in Crook County. In February, Kitzhaber also signed drought declarations for Harney, Klamath, Lake and Malheur counties. A sixth, Wheeler County, has asked the governor to do the same.
Livestock is a top economic activity in Crook County, accounting for more than half of farm gate receipts. Of its 1.9 million acres, approximately 1.4 million acres consist of rangeland, according to the Oregon State University Extension Service. The 2013 Oregon Agripedia, which includes data compiled by the state Agriculture Department, counted 38,000 cattle and calves in Crook County, putting it mid-rank among the state’s livestock producers. Malheur County, by comparison, counted 200,000 head, the most in Oregon.
About 50 to 60 ranchers operate in the high country, said Sessler, president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. The average ranch runs about 800 cow-calf pairs, said Tim Deboodt, an OSU extension agent in Crook County.
To stay profitable, a ranch needs to run 200 to 250 pairs, minimum, without debt and with low overhead. Beef may command record prices, but the costs of most everything to produce it are also climbing, Deboodt said, so profits remain about the same as in previous years.
“In my opinion, if you have zero debt, and you and your wife and your children do all the work, 100 percent of the work, you’d be hard-pressed to make a living on anything less than 300 to 500 cows,” Sessler said.
In addition to his own holdings, about 16,000 acres, Sessler leases another 64,000 acres from the BLM and Forest Service. About 500 ranchers in the BLM Prineville District, which includes Crook County, graze more than 18,000 livestock on more than 1 million acres, according to McSwain and BLM public affairs officer Lisa Clark.
The Forest Service also permits 12,000 cattle to graze in the Ochoco National Forest, said public affairs officer Patrick Lair . Some ranchers, including Sessler, hold permits to graze on both BLM and Forest Service lands.
McSwain said the drought has already produced small or stunted grasses on BLM lands. Until the drought eases, she expects ranchers to safeguard their grazing allotments for next year. The agency in February wrote its leaseholders asking them to voluntarily manage their herds in order to minimize the impact on public lands. The Forest Service has asked the same, Lair said.
“BLM has not taken any action on permits with respect to the drought,” McSwain said. If conditions worsen, the agency could reduce the number of animals permitted to graze on a particular parcel.
The drought in Central Oregon alone may not drive any ranchers out of business, but it could add to a season of anxiety while they juggle costs, grazing schedules and hay supplies for the coming year.
Sessler, who’s run cattle in Crook County for 30 years, said the summer ahead won’t be the first rough season he’s weathered.
“You don’t know if the water in this creek is gonna hold up,” he said, standing creekside where, in a good year, water would cover his boots. “I think it is.”
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