Star-Tribune feature writer,writer Robert Keith is something of an anomaly among Wyoming ranchers this year. He has hay.
One morning last week, Keith loaded square bales from a bucket loader onto a flatbed trailer at his farm on the outskirts of Casper. Keith's farm draws water from the Casper Alcova Irrigation District, meaning he was able to take three cuts of hay last year despite the summer drought.
"We're not really worried about hay," Keith said.
Widespread drought in 2012 divided Wyoming's ranchers into two basic categories: those with hay and those without. The distinction has important implications early in 2013, which already is showing signs of being another dry year.
There may be no better insurance policy against a dry summer than hay. It could mean the difference between keeping and selling key breeding stock. That, in turn, could mean the difference between a profitable year and a devastating one.
2012 was the driest year in the last 118, resulting in the state's worst hay crop since 1950, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Wyoming hay production plummeted from 2.4 million tons in 2011 to 1.9 million in 2012, according to the service.
Nationally, hay stocks are down 16 percent. Prices have gone the opposite direction. Alfalfa was selling at $215 a ton in November, compared to $145 last year.
"I can never remember a time like this when we've had issues like this come together," said Donn Randall, crop and forage program manager at the Wyoming Business Council. "It's tough."
Randall fielded calls from farmers as far away as Wisconsin in search of a single load. At a recent agriculture conference in Nebraska, he met one northern Coloradoan dairy farmer practically begging for any hay he could find. Many Wyoming farmers and ranchers are going to Canada to find hay. And many of the state's farmers who usually sell hay, are not.
Keith is a case in point. In a normal year he would feed out 120 tons of hay. This year he projects feeding between 500 and 800 tons because of limited forage.
"All this hay would normally be sold if there wasn't a drought," Keith said, motioning toward the trailer. "We sure wouldn't be feeding hay now."
Another dry year?
A string of recent storms have brought some much needed moisture to central and southeastern Wyoming in recent weeks. If such storms continue through the late winter and early spring, 2013 could be a profitable year for Wyoming agriculture.
Yet the early returns are not promising. Even with the recent moisture of recent weeks, 2013 is off to a drier start than 2012. That leaves the states farmers and ranchers in a precarious position.
Last year farmers were coming off a lush 2011 and hay reserves tied ranchers through the dry months. Those reserves are gone this year.
Snowpack levels are down, even accounting for recent precipitation. Snowpack on Casper Mountain was just under 47 percent of its 30-year-average on Monday, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service. In the Laramie River basin, which includes the Snowy Range, snowpack was at 72 percent while in the southern Wind River Range reporting stations registered snowpack levels as low as 57 percent. Snowpack is the critical source of moisture for the state's reservoirs and, by extension, its irrigation.
Nearly all of Wyoming's hay depends on irrigation. Precipitation levels, critical for the ground moisture needed for healthy rangeland, are also down in many places in Wyoming. While the northwest and northeastern parts of the state have seen consistent precipitation, central and southeastern Wyoming has struggled. Casper received 1.71 inches of precipitation between October and January. That is 59 percent the city's 30-year average.
Last year the city saw 4.06 inches of precipitation over the same period, according to weather service data. In 2011, that number stood at 3.21 inches.
The state engineer's office recently announced it was implementing "priority administration" on the North Platte River and its tributaries north of Pathfinder Reservoir and between Pathfinder and Guernsey reservoirs.
All water from the designated section of river will be diverted into the reservoirs for storage. It is the first time the state has announced priority administration outside of irrigation season since 2005.
Historically central Wyoming receives much of its moisture in the late winter, but the dry conditions are expected to continue.
"Persistence would probably be a good forecast," said Chris Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Riverton.
Plan or Pray There are precious few options available to ranchers looking to lessen the blow of a drought year, according to industry officials.
The University of Wyoming Extension Service is conducting workshops in Gillette and Upton in March to help farmers and ranchers prepare for drought. The sessions will help ranchers develop a plan for selling off their herd and identifying where they might buy hay, said Brian Sebade of the extension service. They will also discuss combatting invasive grass species that do well in dry conditions, water economics and alternative grazing strategies.
Yet without rain, a rancher can only plan so much before he has to start selling livestock. Keith, for instance, recently sold around 200 heifer calves and steers, or around a third of his herd.
"There is not much you can do, but pray," said Dennis Sun, a lifelong rancher and publisher of Wyoming Livestock Roundup, an industry publication. "Everyone is hoping for a one-year drought. People are still selling cattle… This drought was so widespread."
Widespread Dryness The scope of last year's drought, which encompassed much of the west and Midwest, limits ranchers' options further this year, said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Ranchers typically look for pasture in neighboring states during a drought. But last year's drought left surrounding states with little available grass.
A potential policy battle also looms over grazing on public rangelands should raindrops refuse to fall. The Bureau of Land Management is currently working with individual landowners to develop drought contingencies for grazing on bureau land, said Wyoming BLM spokeswoman Cindy Wertz.
Those contingencies include agreements to limit grazing periods on some parcels or restricting access to others in attempts to prevent overgrazing. Such agreements are determined on a case-by-case basis and are handled by the bureau's regional offices, she said.
The BLM's plans are a "big concern" for Wyoming ranchers, many of whom rely on public rangeland to graze their animals, Magagna said.
He welcomed the move to develop contingencies on a case-by-case basis over a one-size fits all approach, though he remains worried about what another dry year would mean for the industry.
"I think there are areas of the state that have got some moisture and can skirt through and other areas are going to struggle," Magagna said.
Back at his Casper farm, Keith said he believes in the resiliency of the state's ranching industry. Drought is, after all, a part of life here.
His own farm should be in good shape. The Casper Alcova Irrigation District stores water in good years and has a seven-year supply, Keith said.
Further, the farm invested in a series of irrigation pivots, increasing the efficiency of Keith's operations. He said he uses three-quarters of his annual allotment most years. Still, he has worries.
"I think we could hold on one more year," Keith said. "If it happens another year, no one will be in business."