By JOHN O'CONNELL
McCAMMON, Idaho -- Jim Guthrie planned to keep replacement heifers and start growing his cattle herd from 180 to 250 head this year.
Instead, the McCammon rancher and Republican state senator said a widespread shortage of summer range will force him to reduce his herd to 125 cows.
Due to a combination of factors including drought in major cattle states driving competition for Idaho range, grassland lost to wildfires, conversion of range to cropland and ranchers seeking to grow herds to address a national beef shortage, Idaho cattlemen say summer range has become scarce and, when it can be found, much more expensive.
Any available land has rented quickly and at a substantially inflated rate compared with last year.
"It's been an incremental (increase in rent) the last few years, but this year has been a dramatic difference," Guthrie said. "I've never seen pasture in the years I've been around cattle anywhere as tough to come by as this year. I've talked to a lot of folks looking, and there's just not any."
Guthrie had been renting private property from a Soda Springs owner who chose to use it to grow his own herd.
Complicating matters, a cold and windy spring has delayed the growth of grasses. Guthrie is still feeding hay to cattle that are normally on spring pasture by April 15.
He's seen several neighbors building fences around small parcels that haven't historically been grazed.
"I don't expect grass prices to get back down to where they were five to 10 years ago. We've kind of established a new benchmark that way," Guthrie said.
University of Idaho Extension livestock specialist Wilson Gray estimates rental rates for summer range have risen by a third this season, with prices now ranging from $30-$50 per animal unit month. Gray said ranching states such as Texas are still dry enough that ranchers have been moving cattle to greener pastures, including in Idaho. While some ranchers are building herds, Gray said others have been forced to sell heifers they'd hoped to retain as replacements.
"We've seen more cattle on the market, both cows and placements in feed lots," Gray said.
Blackfoot rancher Dennis Lake has purchased several heifers from owners he suspects had been saving them as replacements but were forced to sell by lack of range.
In his region of eastern Idaho, grasses have received only 67 percent of normal moisture, which he believes will limit capacity of available range.
"Grass is at a premium. We're keeping in a corral a lot of yearlings that would normally be on spring range now," said Lake, who has long-term leases for summer range.
Doug Peterson, a Missouri rancher and state soil health conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said demand is growing nationwide for range land. Peterson has nearly doubled his rental rate for his Missouri grazing land in the past three years. He believes the conversion of 1.3 million acres of range to cropland has been a major factor driving demand. Cows that were once moved to Missouri to graze may now be competing for range in the West, he said.