Dee Samson

Dee Samson, a sheep rancher in the Klamath Basin of Oregon, with her North Country Cheviot sheep.

Across the water-starved West, sheep ranchers are making tough decisions.

Facing withered pastures, climbing hay costs and scant water, many are thinning their flocks. Others are thinking of leaving the industry.

In Southern Oregon, many pastures are already parched.

Dee Samson, 65, a longtime rancher in Oregon’s Klamath Basin, anticipated the water shortage and last year reduced her flock of North Country Cheviots by 25%. She also planned ahead by conserving water, planting new forage combinations and preparing to wean and sell her lambs a month earlier than usual.

Despite her efforts, Samson’s farm is hurting.

“We’re seriously affected,” she said.

Her property lies within Shasta View Irrigation District, so she has experienced water cuts.

Samson would like to continue her operation another 10 years, but if the water crisis continues, she said she doesn’t know how long she can make it.

“I’m not very young anymore and I’m getting tired of fighting for survival,” she said.

Samson grows alfalfa, so she will have hay this summer, but likely only through second cutting.

The hay shortage is severe.

According to USDA hay market price reports, June 2021 freight-on-board alfalfa hay prices are up to 50% higher than June of last year.

Cyndie Siemsen, also in Klamath County, said her pasture is so dry she hasn’t stopped feeding supplemental hay — mostly low-nutrient “grain hay” — since last October. Due to shortages in her immediate area, Siemsen recently had hay hauled in from Medford, about a 170-mile round trip.

“It’s been extra expensive,” said Siemsen.

Siemsen said she’s also worried about drinking water. Typically marshy areas of her property are bone-dry, signaling to her the aquifer that supplies her well may be lower.

Paul Lewis, 79, who raises about 700 White Dorper breeding ewes in Bonanza, Ore., said he’s more fortunate because his permitted well can still irrigate the ground, but he’s worried about his cattle on leased land.

Liz Hubbard, another Bonanza sheep rancher, said the drought hasn’t impacted her much yet, “although we know it will and are making plans.”

California sheep ranchers, too, are facing severe drought.

Some ranchers are driving their sheep to other states in search of forage.

Ed Anchordoguy, president of the California Wool Growers Association, said people statewide, including himself, are cutting flock sizes — “trying to reduce mouths you have to feed.”

Rebecca King, who runs a dairy sheep operation in Santa Cruz County, Calif., said she’s culling more adult ewes to improve her genetics and cut feed costs this year.

The silver lining is that live lamb and meat prices are strong, with restaurants coming back and demand surging. King intends to sell extra sausage this year.

Andree Soares, who runs one of California’s largest targeted grazing operations, said although she’s worried about the drought, she’s more concerned about the state’s upcoming overtime wage hike for herders.

“The sheep industry will make it through this drought,” she said, “But we will not make it through if this wage increase happens.”

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