From the pages of
The Sublette County Journal
Volume 4, Number 49 - 8/3/00
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

County Declared An Agri-Business Disaster Area
Year-long drought could cost local ranchers 50% of their hay crop
by Jennifer Binning & Rob Shaul

On Tuesday, Sublette County Extension Agent Eric Peterson told the County Commissioners he expects the countywide hay crop to be between 35% and 65% of normal due to a year-long drought. Mr. Peterson said ranchers on the Piney Front were being especially hard hit by the lack of moisture. At his urging, the Commissioners passed the resolution declaring Sublette County an agri-business disaster area. Big Piney rancher Bob Thompson asked the Commissioners to take this move at their July 18 meeting.

Mr. Peterson said this resolution, if verified by the Farm Service Agency, could make several federal aid programs available to local livestock producers in the county. These include four programs through the Farm Service Agency, and possible low interest loans from the Small Business Administration.

Now that the county declaration has been made, the request for a declaration goes to the Governor's desk in Cheyenne, back to Pinedale for a final report, them off to Washington, so drought relief may be several weeks away.

While this could be good news for drought-stricken local ranchers, they face more bad news beginning with high hay prices.

Many Sublette County ranchers have had to buy extra hay upon occasion, when the herd size was larger than expected going into the winter, or the snow lasted a bit longer than usual. It is generally not too difficult to find someone with a lot of surplus hay to sell, but not so this year.

With an estimated average yield of 50% in the hay field this summer, ranchers, horse enthusiasts and elk feeders are all scrambling to find someone, anyone, who is willing to sell them hay, and it can be found, but at a much higher price than last year.

Over the past few years, the price of hay has averaged right around $60-$65 per ton. This year, however, the short supply has pushed the price up to over $100 per ton undelivered, in some areas.

Bonnie Hueckstaedt, the USDA Farm Service Agent in Farson, said she has been hearing prices anywhere from $125 to $75 per ton for the usually abundant, and inexpensive, crop in northern Sweetwater County. Doug Vickrey of Daniel, who usually sells several tons to the Game and Fish, said he is hearing prices closer to $80-$90 per ton in Sublette County. Mr. Vickrey is in the unaccustomed position of turning away hay buyers until his hay is cut and he knows exactly what he has to work with this year.

The Game and Fish has had to scramble a bit this year in order to get enough hay for the elk feed grounds, and only recently were they able to get contracts to fill their hay corrals for the winter. After factoring in the shipping costs, said Game Biologist Scott Werbelow, the G&F will be paying just about $100/ton once the bales are in place and ready to be fed.

The shortage of forage leaves the ranchers weighing whether they should sell some stock, which could cause a beef glut and lower market prices, or buy hay, which also hits them in the pocketbook.

There's more bad news for local ranchers. Another not so obvious effect of the drought has to do with the fact that many ranchers rely on federal grazing leases. Right now, cattle are grazing on many of these leases, and according to Pinedale District Ranger Bob Reese, forage is still looking good in the higher elevations of the forest. The problem is that in many areas the land is unusable because all the water has dried up in the smaller drainages and stock ponds. This is forcing the cattle to migrate to the larger water sources in higher than normal concentrations. "They are hitting the riparian areas hard," said Mr. Reese in an interview on Tuesday. He added that they were "closely monitoring" the situation to evaluate the damage being done to these fragile areas. Should it become too severe, the ranchers could be asked to remove their animals from the allotments earlier than normal.

In southern Sublette County, Mr. Peterson estimated that 95% of the ranchers left some land without any irrigation water this summer, in part because the water had been strictly regulated most of the summer, and partly to make the most of what little water they did have. Mr. Peterson noted at the Commissioners meeting on Tuesday that only the oldest water rights holders were getting water at this point, and Mr. Cunningham in Fremont County was concerned that there may not be any water available for the stock when they do come down from the leases.

At the moment, in areas that normally have two cuttings of hay and alfalfa each year, many ranchers have forgone either the first or second cutting with the hope that the weather would get a little wetter and the hay crop might look a bit better with time.

"We are just beginning our second cutting here," said Mr. Cunningham, "and we are praying that we don't run out of irrigation water."

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