Statewide drought taking a toll on Colorado agriculture industry

The hot, dry weather that’s fanning fires on tens of thousands of acres across Colorado is also battering the state’s agriculture industry as it stunts crops, dries up the flow of water to farms and shrivels grazing land.

Throughout farm country, the warm spring, hot summer and lack of rain have affected crops and range land for livestock. This year’s wheat harvest is one of Colorado’s smallest in the past decade. Ranchers are thinking about cutting their herd sizes because they’re not sure they’ll have enough water or grass over the long haul.

And while more farmers and ranchers have changed the traditional ways of doing things to improve the health of the soil and pastures, even the most sustainable practices are little match for the conditions that have left 100% of the state abnormally dry or in drought.

“My dad and my grandpa always used to tell me that it takes snow to make winter wheat, and boy there’s a lot behind that,” said Fred Midcap, a fifth-generation Coloradan who farms with his brothers and his son, Nick, in Wiggins.

This past winter, Midcap figures the area on the northeastern plains got about 14 inches of snow, a big drop from the average of 40 inches. The yearly average rainfall is about 13 inches.

“I bet we’re close to 6 to 7 inches total precipitation for the year so far,” said Nick Midcap, during a tour of the farm where the family produces certified wheat seed, which must meet certain standards.

The consequences of scarce moisture are evident in the latest numbers for Colorado’s winter wheat harvest, which recently wrapped up. The 46.5 million bushels reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is less than half of the 98 million bushels cut in 2019 and the second smallest harvest in the past decade.

Harvests averaged 83 million bushels during that period, said Tom Lipetzky, director of marketing programs and strategic initiatives at the Colorado Department of Agriculture. The biggest wheat harvest in the last 10 years was 105.8 million bushels in 2010, he said.

Another telling number: The USDA says this year’s overall yield in Colorado is 30 bushels of wheat per acre. The 2019 yield was 49 bushels per acre.

The Midcaps’ yield this year averaged in the 30s. In 2019, their yield was in the low-to-mid-40 bushel range, which they consider just an average year. They say their production has increased since they started trying to improve soil health by cutting back on tilling, or plowing under what’s left after the harvest.

Leaving residue in the fields benefits the soil by providing shade, keeping it from blowing away, slowing down evaporation and increasing organic matter. The Midcaps also rotate in other crops rather than leaving fields fallow until the next wheat crop is planted. They believe healthier soil has given them a roughly 10-bushel-per-acre edge over farmers who still till and has even offered a bit of a buffer against drought.

Darrell Hanavan doesn’t doubt that no-till operations have an advantage. The former longtime head of the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee also farms on the Eastern Plains, and he said he could see the difference when he was driving around.

“The farmers who were doing no-till or reduced tillage were ones that harvested the better crop,” said Hanavan, now a consultant.

But there’s no getting around the fundamental importance of getting the moisture in the first place. Hanavan said a dry fall resulted in fewer acres being planted and a dry spring reduced the size of the final harvest.

Just under 2 million acres of wheat were planted in Colorado this year, compared with an average of 2.35 million acres over the past decade. And only 1.55 million acres were harvested this season, according to the USDA.

“That means a lot of it didn’t survive the harvest. It was destroyed prior to harvest,” Hanavan said.

All corners of the state

The drought’s grip on the whole of Colorado means many farmers and ranchers are going through what the Midcaps are — or worse.

“The bottom line is the drought is impacting all corners of the state,” said Kate Greenberg, Colorado agriculture commissioner.

When Gov. Jared Polis ordered a task force in June to assess drought damage, an agriculture drought task force was activated to assess the effects on the industry that contributes roughly $40 billion to the state economy each year. Greenberg said members, including federal officials, are meeting biweekly and talking to producers.

Colorado’s corn crop is forecast to be about 152 million bushels, down 5% from the 2019 harvest of nearly 160 million bushels, according to the USDA. As of Aug. 2, the federal agency rated 25% of the state’s corn crop as very poor or poor.

Although not as robust as in past years, the summer monsoon swooping up from the Gulf of California provided a little relief for parched southern Colorado. But Becky Bolinger, the assistant state climatologist, said the rains lasted only a week to 10 days whereas in the past they would stick around during August and even into September.

Since the start of the year, moisture is down 4 to 6 inches across western and southeastern Colorado and anywhere from 8 to 16 inches at higher elevations, Bolinger said.

“The monsoon is pretty variable. We have been extremely unlucky the past three maybe four years. We have not been getting the benefit of the monsoon,” Bolinger added.

The changes in weather patterns, including less moisture and warmer temperatures that melt the all-important snowpack earlier and more quickly, are evidence of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the heat-trapping emissions they create, the majority of climate experts say. Last week, Russ Schumacher, the state climatologist, told The Denver Post that “even if we completely stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow,” it will continue to get warmer.

Whether farmers chalk up the hot, dry weather to climate change or see it as part of the natural cycles, they can agree that the on-the-ground effects are rough. Tom Rusler, who farms with his sons, Nick and Tommy, in Avondale, east of Pueblo, just had a significant share of his irrigation water shut off because his water rights are junior to others drawing from the Bessemer Ditch.

“It’s kind of a big blow to finishing this crop,” Rusler said of his corn.

The family plans to start harvesting the crops, which include pinto beans and feed for cattle, by the end of the first week in September. Rusler’s hopes aren’t high for the corn.

“You look at your crop and it looks good, but you really don’t know until you get in there,” Rusler said. “Last week, we did sampling of the corn fields, doing kernel counts and ear counts and it isn’t as good as we had hoped. It isn’t even average.”

The area on Colorado’s southeastern plains got about 4 inches of rain for the season. The normal rainfall is 11 to 12 inches. The Ruslers and longtime farm manager Ryan Forman have toiled for years to improve the soil health by not tilling the ground and planting radishes and other crops to provide ground cover, nutrients and to prevent erosion.

Rusler wants to incorporate native grasses in part to increase habitat for pollinators. But the drought has put that plan on hold for now.

In southwestern Colorado, where the drought has been extreme, AJ and Nicole Carrilloown and run Deer Tree Farm and Agroforest. They raise peaches, produce, pigs, turkeys and cattle in Hotchkiss and are working to make the soil more healthy.

The work got tougher last week when the Carrillos’ irrigation water flowing from the Paonia Reservoir was shut off, a month earlier than expected, because of the drought.

“We completely depend on that irrigation, there’s just no two ways about it,” AJ Carrillo said. “At this moment with the sky covered in smoke and the oppressive heat since 10 a.m. and the water shutting off, all that stuff going on, it’s a little trying.”

Even so, Carillo said he remains optimistic and focused on his mission of adapting to the climate and landscape to run an environmentally sustainable farm.

Some of the same parts of the state struggled with drought in 2018, but 2019 was a good water year “so we went into the year with good storage,” Greenberg said.

However, the heat and lack of moisture are taxing water supplies in places like the San Luis Valley, Greenberg said. Farmers and ranchers there have been trying to rebuild the aquifer for years to avoid having state regulators step in and restrict water use.

“Cattle and livestock producers are getting hit. Forage has been really bad this year,” Greenberg said. “A lot of folks in 2018 had to cull their herds or greatly diminish their herds. In some cases they lost the genetics that they had been building over time, which is a big loss for the livestock business.”

The grass is greener … nowhere

More than 100 miles southeast of the Ruslers and not far from the Oklahoma and New Mexico borders, third-generation farmer and rancher Harold Unwin is looking at the likelihood of having to reduce his herd — again. He and his family have weathered droughts in the past.

“2011 was bad. We had to sell down practically all our cows, 35 head is what we kept,” Unwin said. “Here in a month, after we wean our calves, we will be selling probably up to half of our herd.”

Ranchers spend years breeding their animals for certain traits. All that effort, the genetics, can be undone when a large part of the herd is sold. But Unwin said he won’t abuse the land by running too many cattle on range that can’t adequately support them. His ranch near Kim has received just a half inch of rain since April.

“The problem we have with the lack of moisture is we’re not growing any grass for the cows,” Unwin said. “You got to have grass to maintain good stewardship of the land. The quote around here is if you take care of the land, it will take care of you.”

For now, Unwin will take care of his herd by hauling thousands of gallons of water to spots where the wells have run dry and the ponds haven’t recharged.

On the Western Slope, Mesa County rancher Janie VanWinkle, said that during the 2018 drought, she and her husband, Howard, thought it was their toughest year in the business.

“This year feels very similar,” VanWinkle said. “The difference for us is in our area, to my knowledge, no one’s hauling water to cattle.”

She thinks a good early-season snowpack helped replenish area springs and ponds. Since January, the moisture has ranged from 17% to 27% of normal. VanWinkle said she manages grazing with the goal of maintaining a healthy range in all kinds of conditions.

“The land is very resilient and we graze it in a manner to make it resilient,” VanWinkle said.

But experiencing drought in two of the last three years has taken its toll, VanWinkle said. This year, ranchers had the added burden of low cattle prices when the coronavirus pandemic temporarily shut down meat processing plants and led to an oversupply of animals.

“We cut (cattle) numbers in 2018, as did a lot of our neighbors. We’ve reduced numbers some this year. If we don’t see at least a decent year next year I would anticipate that we would be destocking,” VanWinkles said. “If we don’t take care of the land during these years, it’s not going to take care of the livestock.”

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