No place to graze
By John O’Connell
Jim Guthrie has given up on looking for private pasture land to lease for his cattle.
Last spring and summer, the McCammon, Idaho, rancher was unable to replace lost grazing leases and had to sell half of his livestock. He’s now resigned to a smaller herd of 100 mother cows.
“I just don’t have the appetite any more for scrounging for pasture,” Guthrie said. “I figure I could just sell the extra hay and not have to fight finding pasture and probably be just as well off in the long run.”
Ranchers throughout the West share Guthrie’s frustration. Cattle prices are at record highs and they’d like to expand their herds, but pasture is in short supply and exceedingly expensive. At the same time, managers are reducing the number of cattle allowed on public land.
Guthrie estimates the cost of leasing private pasture has doubled during the past eight years. He attributes the higher prices and increased competition for private acres to lost grazing opportunities on public land. Thousands of acres of public lands have been temporarily closed to grazing to recover from a string of catastrophic wildfire seasons, and wildlife and habitat concerns have spurred a continuous reduction in the amount of livestock allowed to graze on public land.
Demand for private pasture has also changed how Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, rancher Ken Andrus operates. Andrus, a Republican who chairs Idaho’s House Agricultural Affairs Committee, sold some Caribou County grazing land last year to a cattle grazing association in dire need of private pasture.
“They just offered us too much money to refuse,” Andrus said.
Andrus looked for replacement grazing land in Idaho, Montana and Nebraska but eventually settled on a ranch in Concho, Ariz., that two of his sons now run.
“I think (Arizona) is going to get more popular because it’s such an opportunity for people like us who can’t find grazing here,” Andrus said.
Public grazing dwindles
The grazing occupancy of U.S. Forest Service lands in Southern Idaho, Western Wyoming, Utah and Nevada has been reduced to roughly 60 percent of 1980s densities, estimates Terry Padilla, the agency’s range program coordinator for the Intermountain Region.
“On public lands, it’s just gotten so hard to graze,” said Padilla, likening grazing restrictions to protect water quality, wildlife and habitat to a regulatory “mine field.”
He also believes strong hay prices because of high demand have also prompted private landowners to sell forage rather than run cattle.
Grazing density has also dropped during the past few decades on Washington and Oregon Forest Service allotments, said Tom Hilken, regional range program manager for the agency’s Pacific Northwest Region.
He attributes public grazing reductions in his region to denser forests choking out forage in the understory, and to efforts to protect species that are listed as threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
His region has prioritized thinning forests and restoring vegetation to reduce wildfire fuel loads. More wood has also been made available to mills like those in John Day, Ore. As a secondary benefit of fuel reductions, Hilken anticipates increased carrying capacity for livestock on public lands.
Especially in sagebrush steppe ecosystems, he believes targeted grazing will play a role in controlling fuels and invasive annual plants. Hilken said the Forest Service started a small pilot project this spring within Oregon’s Crooked River National Grassland, seeking to reduce cheatgrass loads with targeted grazing.
Increasing cattle, range prices
Though cattle prices reached record highs during the first four months of 2014, cow numbers are down in the West.
According to a Jan. 31 USDA report, Idaho started 2014 with 445,000 beef cows that had calved, compared with 510,000 at the same time in 2013. Washington’s numbers dropped by 12,000 cows to 209,000 head, Oregon dropped by 11,000 cows to 516,000, and California, at 600,000 cows, lost 10,000 head.
University of Idaho Extension livestock specialist Wilson Gray attributes some of the decrease to Midwestern ranchers bringing back displaced cattle as their grazing lands have recovered from the recent drought.
But Gray said constraints on grazing have also limited herd expansions. He estimates summer pasture that would have rented seven years ago for $12-$15 per animal unit month — the amount of forage needed to support a 1,000-pound cow and her suckling calf for a month — is now fetching $25-$30.
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said endangered species and competition with feed crops have made pasture hard to find in his state. Furthermore, he said the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has purchased private ranch land for wildlife habitat. Agency officials said they allow grazing on some of their lands.
California Cattlemen’s Association government relations director Justin Oldfield said that in his state the combination of drought, wildfires, high cattle prices and the conversion of range to orchards and crop land in the Central Valley have created a “perfect storm” to limit pasture availability.
Competing demands on public land
In the 1960s, the U.S. Forest Service allowed 760 cow-calf pairs to graze the 35,000 acres of public land now permitted to Mike Filbin.
The Dufur, Ore., rancher said the agency has gradually whittled down the number of cow-calf pairs allowed since then — and asked him to build riparian fencing near streams. His combined grazing limit on the allotments was reduced to 100 pairs, and the Forest Service has proposed further reducing grazing occupancy to 50 pairs. The Forest Service also shortened the time allowed on the allotments from 4 months to 2 1/2 months, based largely on endangered species, wildlife and recreational concerns.
Because of all the restrictions he has stopped grazing on those allotments.
“They’re concerned about the frogs. They’re concerned about the fish. I think they’re concerned about the mosquitoes,” Filbin joked. “I think it’s a movement to get everybody off of public lands and turn it into a national park or something.”
After giving up on his public land, he moved cattle to private pasture, which is now for sale at a price he can’t afford. The national Trust for Public Lands is seeking to buy the 10,000-acre Deschutes River Ranch to supplement a wildlife area. Jeremy Thompson, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife district wildlife biologist, said the department allows grazing in its wildlife areas and is working on a grazing management plan for the land.
Nonetheless, Filbin has come to associate public land with more restrictions. Rather than making good on increasing his herd by 100 head to bring his son into his operation, he worries that he may have to reduce it.
Doing more with less
First-generation rancher Keith Nantz started his operation in Maupin, Ore., six years ago. He raises forage crops and runs 100 cow-calf pairs.
“I’d love to continue growing our herd, but I can’t find pasture. That’s the biggest dilemma,” Nantz said.
Earlier this year, he analyzed the economics of converting farm land to provide the more grazing land. Even with record cattle prices, the switch wouldn’t pencil out on 400 acres of irrigated ground, but he intends to plant native grasses on 600 acres he’s used for dryland wheat to supply new winter range.
In today’s ranching environment, Nantz considers it a necessity to make the most of every acre, so he practices management-intensive grazing. Herds are moved daily, confined to small paddocks with portable electric fencing to more completely and uniformly utilize forage while giving individual acres more rest. Nantz believes the practice increases forage utilization by 25-60 percent and improves overall range health, giving native perennial plants a chance to compete with invasive annuals.
Proponents say the practice works.
Jim Gerrish, a management-intensive grazing consultant with American Grazinglands Services in May, Idaho, said most of his customers see a 20-40 percent increase in carrying capacity after implementing the practice, and a few have tripled their forage. Gerrish has noticed a surge in electric fencing sales this spring.
“If you do a cost-benefit analysis, it will always pay off,” Gerrish said.
He considers management-intensive grazing to be a good option for producers facing “reduced AUMs because of a short-term drought or wildlife situation, or just an agency reducing AUMs on a permit.”
Preston, Idaho, rancher Joe Daniel also advocates opening Conservation Reserve Program acres to more frequent grazing without penalties, convinced the change would provide forage while making CRP land less prone to wildfires.
“Every time we graze the CRP ground, especially in the fall after grass is seeded, you’ll see the CRP almost double (in productivity),” Daniel said. “Everywhere I go, people have asked me, ‘What am I going to do? I need this pasture.’”