Janie VanWinkle can hear it in the discontented way her cows call to their calves, the way the dried grass crunches into powder under her boots.
It’s the sound of drought. The landscape where her cows graze in Grand Junction doesn’t have a green tint this spring. It’s gray and brown, ugly and parched.
“And the cattle are just not happy,” said VanWinkle, who grazes her cows and calves across a few tracts of rangeland, some leased from the federal government. “They are just making a sound that is different. Normally, it’s a soft lowing, the cows talking to the calves. It’s not that they’re hungry — it’s that they are having to eat things they normally don’t like to eat and they’re having to travel farther to eat it.”
The Western Slope has suffered a drought three of the last four years, and by now, it’s taken a toll on farmers and ranchers that is both financial and emotional. VanWinkle choked up as she spoke of the “crunch” she hears with every step through the pasture.
“It’s truly the grass and the flora crumbling into a million pieces with every step you take,” she said. “It’s brutal.”
Ranchers and farmers in western and southern Colorado are shipping livestock to greener pastures or selling them off entirely, as fast as the stream flows past their property are dropping. Late-season snowpack was bad enough: Half of the historical median in the Yampa and White River basins in the northwest, 29% in the Upper Rio Grande of the San Luis Valley, 42% in the Gunnison.
Grand Junction is under a heat-wave advisory this week, as the National Weather Service warns of “dangerously hot conditions” up to 110 degrees.
The VanWinkle Ranch, based in Fruita, is already down to 470 cows from its typical 550. VanWinkle is closely following the drought plan she and her husband created — if the rain doesn’t come by July 1, more of their herd will become ground beef. If the rain doesn’t come by Aug. 1, another few dozen will go to slaughter. She already knows which ones.
“We’re married to half of our cows. We will do whatever we have to do to keep half of them,” said VanWinkle, recalling the 2002 drought in which she and her husband each got two jobs in town to avoid selling off more cattle.
Already this year she had to call three other families with small cattle operations and tell them the VanWinkle Ranch didn’t have enough grass to take on their 30 or so head of cattle during the grazing season, as it has in past years. “Those were some of the hardest phone calls to make,” she said.
“Culling hard on the herd” from Hayden to Saguache
Runoff into the streams, rivers and irrigation canals that supply Colorado cattle operations is so low that ranchers are seeing their water supplies reduced to historically low levels or cut off completely.
Soil parched for years by drought is sucking down vital farm water before it hits a reservoir. On the Yampa, the flow into Stagecoach Reservoir this time of year usually runs 400 cubic feet per second. This year, it’s at 16.
The losses accumulate downstream. The major Colorado streams join the Colorado River, which leaves the state to deliver snowmelt to Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles. The catch basin that is Lake Powell will see only 45% of normal inflow this year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation says. The next pool downriver, Lake Mead, on Thursday fell to its lowest level since the Hoover Dam gates were first closed in the 1930s.
Colorado water engineers are ordering groundwater wells shut down on some ranches for the first time in the history of the Rio Grande Water Conservancy District, said State Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, whose day job is head of the district. In Saguache County on the north end, one rancher refused to turn off groundwater pumps, and another rancher said the sheriff was sent out to cool tempers over the cease and desist order.
When ranchers can’t divert river water into irrigation ditches to flood pastures, or pump groundwater over hay meadows, their grass will stop growing by late June. Then, their choices are all money losers, and gut-wrenching ones at that. They can buy up other farmers’ land to get the water rights. They can put cattle in trucks to lease pasture in places where there is more water. They can buy hay at double or triple prices.
Or they can reduce their herds, selling cattle to market early in order to have fewer bovine mouths to feed. Those cuts are happening at nearly every ranch, from Mesa County to Mancos, from Saguache to the Flat Tops.
“We’ll be culling hard on the herd,” said Doug Monger, who in a normal year raises all his own hay for 200 cow-calf pairs east of Hayden. They haven’t had a spring mud season in five years. “All the cows that are marginal will go into town.”
The San Luis Valley and the Rio Grande
Near Saguache, the cumulative drought means tangible consequences this summer, after decades of abstract debate over declining streamflows and whether pumping from wells depletes the aquifer.
George Whitten’s family on San Juan Ranch floods pastures to grow native grasses for about 130 cows and their annual offspring, sold directly to consumers and restaurants as natural grass-fed beef.
Whitten’s grandfather homesteaded the place in 1893, but his water right is still not all that senior. The ranch can flood pasture with Saguache Creek water when there’s enough to reach his priority level, which is 38th. As Whitten spoke Friday, during prime runoff season, there was enough water to reach only the 24th priority.
“So we’re a ways off yet from being able to get water out of the creek, and we’ve gotten no water out of our wells,” said Whitten, after he and other ranchers became subject to cease and desist orders on county wells appearing in the local newspaper and in emails.
The pastures will produce 75% less hay than normal this year, he said. Across Saguache County, 22,000 acres of land are impacted by the well shutdown. Whitten will send some cows and finishing calves to other pastures, making cheap arrangements as often as possible with farmers who want the fertilizing from grazing cattle to regenerate fields.
He will try to avoid buying hay bales for $300 a ton, up from the usual range of $100 to $200. Selling high-quality beef directly to consumers means he can avoid some of the “fire sale” moves other ranchers will have to make this season. Selling live beef cattle into flooded markets by fall might bring only 30 cents a pound. One of the last options for desperate ranchers, Whitten said, is an organic dog food company that’s always willing to buy, at surprisingly competitive prices.
But he will also keep cutting back his operation. Last year, the ranch “destocked” by 30%. He expects to shrink by another 20% this year.
“It’s a sort of a death spiral that you get into with livestock if you’re not careful,” Whitten said.
The Yampa Valley and the Flat Tops
On Bear River, a high creek that becomes the Yampa River below the Flat Tops, Andrea Schaffner’s family grows grass in flooded meadows at 8,500 feet. In a normal year, their 1910 water right lets them and six other ranchers take 30 cubic feet per second of river water for three to four weeks, through the Stillwater Ditch.
This spring, they got 3 cubic feet per second, for a total of 12 hours.
When that water reached the end of the ditch 11 miles later, “it was just a trickle,” Schaffner said.
Schaffner can tick off the horrendous drought years when there was no water in Bear River at all: 2002, in 2012, probably in 1977. So there was a little more water than that this year. But her fears of drought and wildfires are worse this year, because the soil on the slopes is far dryer than even those dry-creek years. Every drop gets absorbed long before it can be used by ranchers.
The Schaffners have a small spring that supplies house and corral water.
“Our spring is a good example,” Schaffner said. “It would normally run, oh, at least 30 gallons a minute, and I would guess it’s now at about 2 gallons a minute.”
If the ranch is able to use some stored-water rights, and gets a little summer rain, they might grow 25 to 30% of their usual grass crop. The Schaffners also run about 30 cattle each year, which they graze on their son-in-law’s property. Their son-in-law is now on the hunt for grass for all the family’s livestock for the rest of the year.
The families have access to some federal grazing rights, but then they have to worry about potential drought-driven wildfires on those remote lands.
“We don’t have a good plan,” Schaffner said. “I don’t think anybody has a good plan for that.”
The North Fork Valley and Delta County
Fruit farmers and cattle ranchers in the North Fork Valley ran out of water early last year as they sipped from Paonia Reservoir in a dry July.
More than 220 farmers and ranchers rely on Paonia Reservoir and the Fire Mountain Canal. After three years of weak snow, broiling summers and high winds, the ground in the North Fork Valley is “just unbelievably dry,” said Dixie Luke, the president of the Fire Mountain Canal.
So farmers need more water to soak their acreage. And the dry stretches without water in the canal means the channels can crack, which can lead to a catastrophic failure and repairs of up to $200,000. Right now Anthracite Creek is still flowing, so Luke has not had to start releasing from the full Paonia Reservoir. Once she turns that on, though, the valley has about 45 days of water. Best-case scenario: Anthracite Creek flows until the end of June so Paonia Reservoir can support North Fork growers into August.
Many of those users have developed water-saving drip irrigation systems and built holding ponds to allow for late-season irrigation, which is critical for fruit trees.
“But this darn hot weather and wind just takes that water away from them, too,” said Luke, who also raises cattle in the North Fork Valley. “I’m sorry. I just don’t have a lot of good news right now.”
Since the extraordinarily dry summer of 2018, Colorado’s farmers and ranchers have been hoping for an extra-snowy winter. After three mediocre winters, they are losing hope that a single season of snow can save their farms.
Last year, Ed Tuft had about 21 acre-feet of water in his primary ditch — most of which he rented to augment his share of water from Paonia Reservoir — to irrigate the almost 400,000 fruit trees he’s growing on 400 acres above the North Fork of the Gunnison River. This year, he has only 7.5 acre-feet. He’s ripped out 5,000 to 7,000 trees from his Leroux Creek Farms.
“Anything that was not going to produce in the next few years is out,” he said.
The impact of three dry winters is reaching all corners of the North Fork Valley and the Western Slope. A decade ago, Tuft got most of the apples for his Leroux Creek fruit cannery from Delta County. Now, he gets 2%, and buys most of his apples from Washington. A few decades ago, the valley had about 25,000 acres of apple orchards and now it’s closer to 3,000, he said. The apricot and cherry market in the valley has declined just as much.
“I tell you, I’m whooped right now,” Tuft said. “I’m lucky this is not my only source of money. If it was, I would not be able to sleep at night.”
The Eastern Plains from Limon to Wyoming
On the Eastern Plains, the grass is a lush green, tall and thick. Most of the rain that fell on Colorado this spring hit the ground in Denver and out to the east, on the farm and ranch lands around Fort Morgan and Limon.
But don’t think the ranchers there are expanding their herds based on the good fortune of two or three months of rain. They know better.
Technically, the drought isn’t over, said Kelsey Pope, who along with her husband manages her parents’ cattle operation, River Bend Ranch, just west of Limon. The ranch has been in a drought since 2017, and 2020 was the worst Pope has ever seen.
“It’s amazing how it’s sprung back from last year being one of the worst years ever,” she said. “But the weather forecast is saying it’s going to be a hot summer and the rain is going to shut off in July or August.”
Back in 2017, River Bend had 1,200 head of cattle. This year, it has just 480, a downsizing that was the result of years of parched soil. Without steady rain, the buffalo and blue grasses don’t grow tall enough to shade the ground, and the soil is zapped of its biodiversity and nutrients.
In January through March, River Bend sold off cattle. The older ones went for ground beef. The younger ones were sold to ranches in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska, where weather conditions weren’t as dire as Colorado.
Then in April, it began to rain in Limon.
Still, River Bend is not ready to start restocking its herd.
For now, the green grass is high and the cows are content, spread out in the pasture and grazing. It’s a welcome sight compared to the extreme drought years, when the cattle would crowd together at the gate, mooing to get to the next pasture in hopes of finding better grass.
“My grandpa used to say a drought will always be bested by good rains,” Pope said. “But we know the rain could shut off.”