In the foothills of the Blue Mountains, just down the road from Weston, Oregon, rancher Cheryl Costner observed the mountain range where her feed became brittle and dry in the ongoing drought.
Pastoralists across the west with little viable pasture for their livestock are turning to hay markets to supplement their diets, pushing up the prices of a supply that has also been shrunk by the combination of drought and heatwave of June. Today, some are worried about finding – and paying for – enough to feed their animals.
âWe’re pretty nervous,â Costner said.
Costner’s cattle usually have more than enough forage where they are, but the pasture has dried up faster than ever before, Costner said in an interview. Costner, who owns the Upper Dry Creek Ranch with her husband, Robert, generally expects the beach to dry up around mid-July or late July.
âWe are nowhere where water is going to come out of a pipe,â she said. âWhen Mother Nature goes with the rain, we are done with our humidity. “
But this year, the grass dried up several weeks earlier in early July. Costner can only recall another year in the past 17 when the grass dried out before July 4th. When the pasture dries up, the grasses become less palatable to livestock and can contain as little as half the protein, Costner said. This in turn can cause cattle to lose weight, whether they are older cows or young heifers suckling a calf while still growing, she added.
âWe’ve never felt like we had to add alfalfa (for cows) in the past,â Costner said. âThis year, we are thinking about it. We are already seeing a decrease in the body condition of our cattle.
They may need to wean some calves early in order to prevent the condition of the heifers from deteriorating further, she added, which in turn will result in additional costs for feeding the calves.
Sheep are also particularly sensitive to reduced feed quality, especially when they are lactating. But the Costners arranged to graze their sheep in an irrigated field in a circle in Touchet, after making a deal with a farmer there. While the field’s cover crop, barley and vetch, have dried up under the drought conditions, the weeds – prickly pear lettuce, redroot pigweed, and lamb’s quarters – are still viable and highly nutritious. Between the weeds and the barley heads, the lambs stay well fed, Costner said.
But the Costners envision increased feed costs for their cows, if they can even order enough to get through the winter.
âI have hay ordered right now,â she said. “But it’s not enough.”
Hay supply also affected by drought, heat
On the other side of the equation, producers who grow grasses or legumes that are sold as hay have also been hit hard by the hot, dry year.
The hay is usually irrigated, said Tim DeRuwe, a Walla Walla Valley farmer who sells hay to local and export markets. Local farmers mainly depend on surface water to irrigate their crops, such as those in the Walla Walla River or small streams, added Craig Christensen, a Walla Walla Valley producer specializing in small bales of hay who sells mainly to small hay bales. local buyers, often to feed the horses. .
âThose dried up probably six weeks earlier than usual,â Christensen said.
Producers with water rights and access to wells can overcome the additional pressure of drought, DeRuwe added. But these water rights are tightly controlled and are usually only relaxed when the state issues a drought emergency declaration, as Washington did on July 14.
âIf you look around you will see a lot of alfalfa fields that are already burnt,â DeRuwe said.
The heat wave that hit the Pacific Northwest in June also affected the hay industry. For legume hay varieties such as alfalfa, growers want to cut the crop before it flowers, which increases the fiber in the hay and decreases its protein content, DeRuwe said.
âSome of our fields look pretty blue,â DeRuwe said, referring to the light purple alfalfa blossoms from a distance.
For the horse market, a little alfalfa bloom isn’t such a big deal, Christensen said. The impact of the heat wave on the grass hay hits the producer of small bales the hardest.
âIt doesn’t react to water or anything,â he said. âIt’s just too hot. We can’t get him wet enough, and he just seems unwilling to grow. “
As Christensen looks to the years ahead, he fears that recovery may be a long process, even under ideal conditions.
âWhat scares me the most, the drought doesn’t end the first day it rains,â he said. âRecovery from a drought of this nature could take years. “
Higher prices, more instability
Local prices for large bales of hay – smaller bales are significantly more expensive – are expected to be around $ 210 per tonne, DeRuwe said, about 20% higher than the average year.
The increase in prices is beneficial in the short term for hay producers, but producers fear that these higher prices and historical demand for their product could have disastrous effects in the long term.
âIt’s good so far, but it comes back to haunt us later,â DeRuwe said. “Become too expensive and people exporting to foreign countries can not afford to buy it.” Greed isn’t the best – what we need is a good average.
For his part, Christensen fears that some ranchers, both locally in the valley and across the United States, are collapsing under the pressure of high prices and parched fodder.
âThey can’t afford to feed them all summer and all winter,â Christensen said. âIn a lot of parts of the Northwest and in the United States in general, people are ditching cattle because they can’t afford it. Most of these breeders will not come back.