Cattle photo

Tanner McIntosh, a rancher from Gilliam County, Ore., herds a group of cattle.

As drought intensifies across the West, cattle ranchers are making difficult decisions.

Amid water and forage shortages, mounting hay prices and market fluctuations, many ranchers are selling cattle so they’ll have fewer mouths to feed. Some are culling cows, selling calves early and reducing breeding stock numbers. Others are selling entire herds.

“This is probably the most serious drought California has seen in my existence,” said Steve Faria, corporate broker at Turlock Livestock Auction Yard in California’s Central Valley. “I’ve been marketing cattle going on 43 years, and I haven’t seen the issues that we’re seeing today.”

Many ranchers say they’re worried about drinking water supplies. Wells, ponds, streams and lakes are drying up. Some ranchers are having water trucked in — a huge expense.

Paul Lewis, who runs cattle on leased land in Klamath County, Ore., said he’s concerned he’ll no longer have water from nearby Gerber Reservoir by the start of August.

“Everybody’s knuckled down, saving water,” he said.

Cyndie Siemsen, another Klamath Basin rancher, said she’s worried about her aquifer.

“If the well goes low, we’re going to have to start hauling water,” she said.

Ranchers across Oregon and California say forage is parched and limited. Some are driving out of state in search of pasture. Others are rotating pastures more often.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said John Shine, a rancher in Lake County, Ore.

Shine charges other ranchers a fee to graze their cattle on his summer pasture, but because grass is limited, this year, he’s stocking 30% to 40% fewer animals.

Tom Sharp, president of Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and a rancher in Burns, Ore., he’s rotating pastures twice as fast as usual.

Like many ranchers, Sharp is feeding supplements, including protein tubs and minerals. But that gets expensive. Hay prices are 50% higher than last year, according to USDA, and mineral expenses quickly add up.

Sheila Barry, University of California natural resource and livestock adviser, said ranchers who rely on annual grasses rather than irrigated pastures are used to forage drying up each summer. What makes this year worse, she said, is annual grasses didn’t germinate well in many places, were slow to start growing, and in some regions, are still recovering from wildfire.

“The question for cow-calf producers is: Do I have enough forage to keep my cows?” Barry said.

The answer, for many, is no.

Auction staff across the West say they’re seeing larger volumes, and in some cases record numbers, of animals being sold.

Faria of the Turlock Livestock Auction Yard said auction season moved up 30 to 45 days. People are culling cows heavier and selling calves earlier.

Dozens of small-to-midsized operations have folded, selling entire herds.

“You have potential flooding of the market with excess inventory,” said Sharp of Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. “That could really depress live cattle prices at auction.”

The worst may be yet to come.

“There are a lot of people who haven’t pulled the trigger yet — in other words, they haven’t liquidated yet,” said Shine, the Lake County rancher. “But a lot of them are sure looking at it, and as the summer gets along, there’s going to be a lot more cattle on the market.”

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