Drought worries Colorado ranchers, farmers

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Nation: Drought worries Colorado ranchers, farmers

By JUDITH KOHLER, Associated Press

DENVER (September 4, 2000 10:40 a.m. EDT http://www.nandotimes.com) - Hot, dry weather has wilted Colorado's wheat harvest, drained reservoirs and parched pasture land, spurring the growth of desperation, fear and despair among ranchers and farmers.

They worry their livelihoods could be in the same sort of crisis that has stricken the dry South - especially if the winter doesn't bring heavy snows to replenish the soil and fill rivers and lakes.

"I honestly think we're going to squeak out of this year," said state Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament. "But next spring, if we don't get a good snowfall, we are in serious trouble."

For John Shawcroft, trouble is already here.

"We have some very, very serious situations here in southern Colorado," said the third-generation rancher who is being forced to move his cattle off national forest land weeks ahead of schedule because of drought conditions.

From Montana to New Mexico, the Rocky Mountain region is parched. Ranchers and farmers are struggling as counties across Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico seek federal disaster relief.

Much of the region's water comes from mountain snow that melts, flows into rivers and lakes and is shipped by pipelines to the high plains. Wells tap underground water formations.

Now wells are drying up in some spots and some rivers are low because of last spring's low snowpack. Many farmers along the Front Range who irrigate crops have already depleted their share of water.

And later-than-normal summer monsoons are little help for farmers who rely on snow and rain for water. Only the Western Slope's fruit growers are reporting bountiful crops.

"It is absolutely, positively the driest I've ever seen it here," said Jim Roberts, 51, who farms near Wray in east-central Colorado. He went nearly two months without rain last spring and recent thunderstorms that soaked parts of the plains have skipped his land.

Roberts' wheat harvest in July was only a third of what it should have been, and his corn crop is a loss. He would normally be preparing to plant his next wheat crop in less than a month.

"But if it doesn't rain, I don't get to plant," he said.

That's the big concern right now, said Darrell Hanavan, executive director of the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee.

"It's very critical the wheat crop be planted under good moisture conditions because that usually dictates whether the crop is going to be above or below average," he said.

Animals have fared no better. For the first time in his ranching career, Shawcroft has chopped up thousands of pounds of potatoes and scattered them through his field for the cows.

"It's desperation measures, you might say," he said.

When the potatoes run out, Shawcroft and others in the San Luis Valley will have to sell his calves earlier than usual, hoping that beef prices, on the rise after a big slump, don't plummet again.

"I hear every day or two of someone wanting to sell," he said.

Original predictions pegged this year's winter wheat crop - planted in September and harvested in July - at 98.7 million bushels, above the 10-year average of 85.9 million. But the total harvest was 70.5 million bushels - worth $70 million less than initial estimates.

Some experts believe Colorado, which has enjoyed above-normal precipitation in recent years, might be entering a dry period, said Bob McLavey, state deputy agriculture commissioner.

The soil - on top and below - is mighty dry, said Lance Fretwell of the Colorado Agricultural Statistics Service. The soil in at least 71 percent of the wheat acreage is dry to very dry, compared with adequate or better conditions on at least 72 percent of the land a year ago.

"Life in general in agriculture has been very tough," said Jerry Hergenreder, 42, who farms east of Longmont.

Hergenreder's wheat was so bad he just baled it up for his cattle. Other ranchers trying to line up hay for fall and winter are discovering that supplies are already tight.

Extra water is nearly impossible to find, said Hergenreder, who has used his allotments from the Big Thompson River and has leased some more. "By the end of the week, I'll be out of water."

His plan to expand his cattle herd is on hold because he's afraid the prices will drop again if ranchers who can't feed their cows flood the market.

"I'm just lucky to be holding my own," he said


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 04, 2000

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