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Survey Results Pinpoint Drought Problems Plaguing Colorado Ranchers, Farmers

Grace Hood

As drought persists across the country and in Colorado, the word “uncertainty” increasingly comes up in farming and ranching conversations.

Just how that sentiment is creeping into everyday business decisions for producers was evident at a statewide Agriculture forum in Denver Thursday.

Colorado State University launched a drought questionnaire last December to get a more complete idea of how the lack of rain is impacting producers across the state.

In 2012, about 400 producers reported crop yields dropping by double digits with dry land crops seeing the worst results. Meantime, ranchers running cow-calf operations made significant reductions to their herds due to the rising cost of feed.

“They cut their herd almost in half, which is a bigger selloff than I expected. Maybe that’s because we self-select people most affected by the drought into our survey,” said Associate CSU Professor James Pritchett, who launched the project.

CSU is still encouraging ranchers and farmers to complete the online questionnaire, which looks at everything from profits to how and when producers made key decisions in 2012 about changing their operations.

28 percent switched things up before April 1 while half of respondents changed things before June 1.

“…and everything else was made after that. I think [the timing] it’s crop specific,” said Pritchett. “If you’re a cow-calf producer you won’t change production practices until you see how much grass you have.”

Ultimately Pritchett hopes the results will help ranchers and farmers make better decisions about how to handle what’s expected to be another dry year.  Right now statewide snowpack is only at 74 percent of normal.

Joel Shoeneman, who ranches southeast of Greeley, was one of dozens who crowded into the room looking for answers. He made a small profit in 2012, but says 2013 may be different. Adding to the uncertainty for Shoeneman is a long-term Farm Bill that has yet to be negotiated by Congress. At a time when access to capital is important, he worries bankers might be reluctant to loan money.

“…and of course a lot of farmers borrow money based on what the farm program is and what it will be,” he said. “So we’re just waiting to see a lot of things, what the drought will do, what the farm program will be, if we get any moisture, any of that stuff.” 

Defining and measuring that uncertainty is something CSU researchers will continue to do this year.

The survey will remain open until the end of February with more results expected later this year.

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