Ranchers see relief after dry summer punished rangeland
By JOHN O'CONNELL
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho -- Timely October precipitation helped many eastern Idaho ranchers achieve a considerable savings through reduced feed consumption.
Rick Passey, an Idaho Falls farm and ranch manager with Becker Farms, said the dry weather threatened to force him to move cattle from their summer pasture in Bone, Idaho, a few weeks early. Thanks to a relatively moist start to the new water year, he now expects to keep them in Bone until Nov. 20, about the normal time.
Passey said the moisture has "softened up" dry grasses in the summer range.
"When it's bone dry, they walk through it and they break off as much as they eat," Passey said. "We would have been forced to move them back. When we start feeding our cows (hay), we feed 4 tons per day. That's $800. It's pretty easy to do the math."
The moisture also helped Idaho Falls farmer and rancher Gary Dixon delay the start of hay feeding by keeping his cattle on their summer range longer.
"It was pretty dry until three weeks ago. We were able to keep them there another three weeks. We're going to save quite a bit there," Dixon said.
Dwight Little, a farmer and rancher in Teton, Idaho, estimates the moisture enabled him to keep his cattle on their summer range for an extra two to three weeks. He said there's not much nutrition left in the summer range, but it's sufficient to maintain cattle after calves have been weaned.
"It softened that grass up and made it a little more palatable," Little said. "That might be the difference between making a little money and not when you start talking about $200 (a ton) hay."
Natural Resources Conservation Service hydrologist Jeff Anderson said key rangeland in southern Idaho has received 85 to 95 percent of normal precipitation during the water year that began in October, and eastern Idaho's precipitation has been 80 to 90 percent of normal.
Though still below normal, Anderson noted it's a welcome change in the weather from the exceptionally dry summer.
Idaho from Boise to the north has seen above-average precipitation during the new water year, ranging from 107 percent of normal in the Boise Basin to 140 percent of normal in the Clearwater Basin, Anderson said.
Idaho's southern basins south of the Snake River have been dry, however, receiving about 60 percent of normal precipitation, Anderson said.
Anderson considers it a good sign for agriculture that conditions in the Pacific Ocean this summer aligned with an El Niño winter, which typically results in dry weather in the Pacific Northwest, have shifted toward a neutral weather pattern.