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‘It’s going to cost us a pile’: Livestock producers in Mountain West hit hard by winter weather

A woman dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans stands in front of a fence on a Nevada feedlot. A herd of cattle is on the other side of the fence, and there is a view of the mountains in the background.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
Lucy Rechel, director of the feedlot operations at Snyder Livestock Company, stands near a herd of cattle at the farm located outside of Yerington, Nev., on March 9, 2023.

On a recent morning on a snow-covered farm in Western Nevada, Lucy Rechel had a spring in her step. Rechel, who manages the cattle operation at Snyder Livestock Company, said the cows in the feedlot were feeling good, too, because it was clear-skied and sunny.

“They’re enjoying it. They’re just like, ‘Ahhh, we’ll just stretch out and enjoy this,’ ” Rechel said.

Nice weather has been in short supply in Mason Valley this winter. Many days have been filled with wind, rain or snowstorms. And when that happens here?

“The ground very quickly turns to mud, and we had more mud than I’ve ever seen,” Rechel said. “And it was very wet, sloppy, so the cattle were just standing in this soup, so we had to take pretty significant action to get the cattle comfortable.”

A truck pours feed into a trough for a herd of cattle to eat at Snyder Livestock Company outside of Yerington, Nev., on March 9, 2023.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
A truck pours feed into a trough for a herd of cattle to eat at Snyder Livestock Company outside of Yerington, Nev., on March 9, 2023.

In fact, Snyder Livestock has spent about $75,000 – and counting – just dealing with mud. That includes renting large mining equipment to haul it out and paying for the labor and fuel to run it. In a normal winter, the company will spend maybe $10,000 on mud removal, Rechel said.

And there’s even more impacting revenue, like dwindling cattle numbers at their feedlot, which serves many nearby farms. Because of the harsh winter, farmers have been cutting back on their herds.

“Normally, in January and February, we would have 5,500 head here and we’re down to 4,000,” Rechel said. “Income will be roughly two-thirds of what it is in a more average year.”

That’s an example of why Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming recently asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide relief to livestock producers. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon even asked for a disaster declaration.

USDA’s emergency relief programs are normally for producers affected by natural disasters, like wildfires and drought, said J.J. Goicoechea, director of the Nevada Department of Agriculture.

“What we’re asking for is, ‘Can you guys be creative and flexible in the eligibility for that?’ ” he said. “Nothing mandatory. We’re just looking for some options for some producers if they do need some help.”

One of those producers is Jon Griggs, who manages Maggie Creek Ranch in northeast Nevada’s Humboldt River valley. Griggs can normally graze their cattle on permitted federal pastures for at least a month each winter. But he said the harsh cold and heavy snowfall have had a big impact – on how much the cows need to eat and whether grazing is effective.

Cattle from Maggie Creek Ranch, based in Elko County, Nev., are driven from a snow-covered pasture to feeding ground this winter.
Courtesy Of Jennifer Whitely
Cattle from Maggie Creek Ranch, based in Elko County, Nev., are driven from a snow-covered pasture to feeding ground this winter.

“Cows’ nutritional requirements went through the roof because of that cold,” Griggs said. “And then that snow cresting over, they can’t work their way through it anymore, and they lose condition and strength pretty quick.”

That means his cattle are surviving on hay. Maggie Creek Ranch has a wet meadow where it harvests hay in the summer to have on hand for winter feed. Griggs said they usually produce up to 3,000 bales of it.

That wasn’t the case last summer.

“We got 29,” Griggs said. “That was all we got between lack of water and then the drought.”

It’s why hay supplies are low across Nevada and the entire West, driving prices higher. For example, two years ago, Nevada hay prices were $184 per ton. Nevada ranchers are paying nearly $300 per ton this winter.

“What will help us from the USDA, if they make it where other producers can bring hay in from regions in the West that fared better last summer than we in Nevada did,” Griggs said. “That will help keep hay available for us.”

Back at Snyder Livestock Company, Rechel stood next to a feeding trough that extended for roughly 100 yards. She hopes all livestock producers – the ranchers and feedlot operators like herself – will be considered for emergency relief funds.

“It’s going to cost us a pile to get through this winter to keep these cattle safe and comfortable and then hopefully gaining weight,” Rechel said.

Until then, she’s hoping to have more days when these 4,000-some-odd cows can stretch out under blue, sunny skies – and not be stuck in mud.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

Kaleb Roedel