ENTERPRISE — Every day, cattle rancher Todd Nash has filled a 1,000-gallon tank with water from his home and hauled it to one of his herds grazing on land he rents nearby.
A well on the land he is using dried up, resulting in the need to drive the narrow, winding dirt road into the backcountry.
But Nash knows others in the region have it worse.
“This is fortunate that I’m this close (to home),” he said, estimating he only has to drive around 10 miles one way — though the entire process of filling the tank, navigating the roads once off Highway 82 and emptying its contents into the well or a 3,000-gallon cistern can take around three hours. “Some of the guys that are hauling water are quite a lot further out.”
Hauling water to cattle may be one of the more visible impacts of the drought that has severely impacted Northeastern Oregon — and the West — in 2021.
But it is far from the only one.
Because of the early start to the drought — including a lack of the spring rain that ranchers depend on — many had to adjust on the fly to graze their animals. And with cattle, feed means pounds, which equates to dollars.
Nash, who has been a cattle rancher since 1994, said he’s never seen a year like 2021.
First came an extremely cold April, with a hard freeze almost every night. That was followed by a heat wave, with unusually high temperatures in May and June leading into a scorcher of a summer. And through it all, precipitation was about half of normal.
“It set up for the worst grazing season I’ve ever seen,” Nash said. “Even talking to the old-timers here, they’ve never seen such a tough forage year.”
Nash has about 100 head of cattle. As the president-elect of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, he talks to lots of other producers to stay abreast of what’s happening around the state, and he’ll tell you that things are rough all over.
Throughout the state, drought and summer heat this year led to poor forage conditions for livestock. It also impacted many irrigators, leading to a poor hay crop. With hay in short supply and supplemental feed in high demand, the cost of cattle production has soared. Many ranchers also found themselves in the same predicament as Nash, having to haul water to thirsty herds as ponds and springs dried up.
Wallowa rancher Dennis Sheehy was forced to feed hay to his herds much longer than usual this spring due to a lack of forage on the range. He had to use about 80% of the hay he planned to hold for this winter.
“We weren’t able to turn out on some of our range land as early as we would (normally),” he said.
Though necessary, each move set off a detrimental domino effect. As the year went on, Sheehy for a time had to turn some of his cattle onto a field he typically hays. That meant the animals ate grass that would normally feed them in the winter.
“Then we had lower hay production,” Sheehy said. “That hurts because we have to buy hay for winter. The hay price right now, because of the drought, is so expensive.”
Darren Hansen of Lazy H Cattle in Cove said there is less hay to cut because of lower yields.
Because of a lack of forage, ranchers are feeding earlier.
“Some of those guys are feeding right now,” Hansen said in early October.
A shortage of forage on summer pastures has also led to lighter calves, which are worth less.
“The calves are about 20-30 pounds lighter than they should be,” Hansen said.
Nash noted the same effect.
“(In) a really dry year, you’re going to have some cows that come in on a low body condition score,” he said. “To put that weight back on is really expensive, and nearly impossible with just general hay products.”
Hansen said that among his lighter-than-normal animals are his breeding cows. The impact here, he said, is that when it comes time to breed them, some of the pregnancies won’t be successful.
“The cows are not near as fleshy as they should be,” he said. “I’m going to have way more open cows than I normally do. If you have a cow that is not in good shape, (then) her body is not fleshy enough to get bred. That will hurt my bottom line next year.”
Hansen also operates a cattle trucking business, which has shown a different, heartbreaking decision ranchers are having to make.
“We’re trucking cattle to slaughter that are bred, because nobody has the hay or the grass to feed them,” he said, noting this action likely will affect the entire cattle supply chain. “We are taking production animals out of the production line and putting them in the food chain because there is no way to feed them.”
Hansen said he had already hauled around 300 bred cows to slaughter.
“I think people have reached that point that they’re wondering how they are going to get through the winter, and having to make some really tough decisions,” Nash said. “And this comes on the heels of quite a few bad years.”
Sheehy noted that ranchers, including himself, are culling their herds more than normal this fall.
“We’ll be culling heavy, and probably change some of our practices,” he said, noting that he doesn’t yet know what those numbers will be. “Maybe not keep as many heifers back.”
Sheehy’s view is that even if winter brings a bountiful snowpack, and spring rains result in a heavy forage crop in 2022, the effects of this year’s drought could still be felt for a while.
“That’s the way I look at it. It’s not just one thing. It’s not (just) a dry year. It’s the convergence of things here that are really hurting the industry,” he said. “If we have even a semblance of a drought next year it’s going to have an impact on people’s ability to raise livestock here.”
“We’re just all praying for rain this fall, winter and spring,” Hansen said, “or it will be twice as bad as it was this year.”
Dean Defrees waited for the grass to grow to its customary green, lush carpet, brushing the bellies of his cattle.
And then he waited some more.
But the grass, deprived of even the occasional rains, failed to respond.
“It was a tough year, and continues to be,” Defrees, whose family has a ranch in Baker County’s Sumpter Valley, said Oct. 6.
The drought stunted the grass that Defrees depends on to fatten his cattle during the summer and into autumn.
He estimated forage production on the ranch, which includes meadows and Ponderosa pine forests, was down 10% to 15% from a typical year.
As a result, Defrees said, he expects to have to start feeding hay to the herd three to four weeks earlier than usual.
Which means a bigger bill for hay, since the ranch buys all its winter feed.
And hay prices are higher than usual, which exacerbates the financial toll.
“We had a couple timely rains here, but not nearly enough,” Defrees said.
For the first nine months of the year, precipitation at the Baker City Airport totaled 3.58 inches — 48% of the average.
Defrees said he considers himself fortunate in that he has a longtime relationship with his hay supplier. His hay costs are up 20% to 30%, he said.
“I know for others it’s higher than that,” Defrees said.
Heat wasn’t the only problem for ranchers, and for hay growers, this year, Defrees said. The other was a cold snap in the spring.
The cold stunted grass growth and forced many ranchers to feed hay to their cattle longer into spring than usual, Defrees said.
Defrees said the prospect of a longer winter feeding season, with more expensive hay, prompted him to market some cattle earlier than he would have preferred.
That’s likely to be a common situation across the West, said Rob Thomas of the Thomas Angus Ranch in Baker Valley.
He expects a significant liquidation of herds this fall.
The upside, Thomas said, is that ranchers who are able to hold on to most of their animals should be in a position to take advantage of higher prices in 2022.
Thomas said the current drought “is the worst that I’ve experienced.”
“We have to hope and pray for a very, very wet winter,” Thomas said.
The word for 2021 is “unprecedented,” said Grant County stockman Ken Holliday.
“I’ve seen other bad years in my life ... but they pale in comparison to this year,” he said.
Holliday has a ranch between John Day and Prairie City as well as other holdings scattered around the county, where he runs more than 900 red Angus and Hereford cross cows and 140 bulls.
The key to getting through a lean year like this one is to be prepared, he said. Last spring, when he saw signs that 2021 could be historically dry, he started taking steps to weather the drought.
Among other things, Holliday invested in solar-powered pumps to coax water out of springs that appeared to have dried up. That spared him the expense of having to haul water to his herds.
“We got water where we never had water before,” he said.
Holliday has also invested in hay — not only for this year but for next year as well, which he fears could be as bad as 2021.
“I’m going to buy about 2,000 tons before it’s all over with so when next year comes along and we don’t get enough hay, I’ll have enough to get through,” he said.
Holliday’s advice to his fellow ranchers is to take steps now to be ready for more challenging years to come.
“You’ve got to optimize your production on those meadows and those old water rights,” he said. “Go ahead and bite the bullet, even if you’ve got to borrow money, and go ahead and buy hay for an insurance policy.”
Assessing the market
Even though the price of beef has climbed steeply at the supermarket, Nash said producers are being squeezed by low prices for their cattle due to consolidation in the meatpacking industry over the last five years or so.
Nash noted that just four companies — Tyson Foods, Cargill, National Beef and JBS — now process 85% of the cattle raised in this country.
“They’ve managed to get a captive supply of cattle where they don’t have to negotiate prices (with producers),” he said.
Then COVID-19 hit the packers’ workforce last year, further slowing production, which was just starting to pick up after a 2019 fire at one of the nation’s largest processing plants.
All of those stresses have forced many cattle producers to take drastic measures, Nash said, from culling more older animals to selling their herds.
“Some of them are hoping to get back into it when this is all over, and some have just given up completely,” he said.
Amid the twin challenges of weather and market forces, Nash is heartened by the way some members of the state’s agricultural community have stepped up to help their neighbors in need. And he’s encouraged by the creative approach some ranchers are taking by direct-marketing their beef, which can result in lower costs to consumers and higher profits for producers.
Still, he’s concerned about the future of cattle ranching in Oregon.
“Survivors in this business are survivors for a reason: They’ve been innovative and they’ve done some things to keep costs low,” Nash said. “But there’s only so much we can do with efficiencies. We’re going to have to make some decisions about whether we’re going to stay in this business or not.”