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Ranchers get drought tips at Farm and Ranch Days

Ranchers get drought tips at Farm and Ranch Days

Jan 30, 2013 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

The 29th Annual Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days event was under way Wednesday in Riverton, where representatives and organizations from the industry gathered to share information and tips with local residents.

John Ritten, assistant professor in the University of Wyoming's Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, arrived at the Fremont County Fairgrounds Fremont Center equipped with graphs and charts indicating that this year may be another dry one for the state.

"I'm not sure we're through our drought yet," Ritten said. "It's not looking good. I hate to say it, but I wouldn't count on having a lot of grass this year."

He pulled up an image of the Wyoming drought index, which shows the state's average summer conditions over the past 100 years. Ritten pointed out that Wyoming droughts tend to last at least two seasons, if not more.

"There's only a couple of spots where we've been dry for one year," he said. "And it seems like recently droughts are worse and longer."

He advised his audience to start planning now for the potential for a drought in 2013, adding that many area ranchers will be able to use their personal experiences to inform their decision-making.

"In Wyoming, always expect a drought," Ritten said. "If this is your first one, you're new."

He suggested that ranchers also can use economic models that show the benefits and drawbacks of their options in the fact of a dry year. For example, he said liquidating, or selling a herd, makes sense if a rancher wants to save his grass for grazing in a better year. Others, though, may choose to keep their livestock and continue feeding the animals purchased hay, which can be expensive.

"One option that made a lot of sense in our model was weaning calves and sending them two months early to market," Ritten said. "You're not going to make as much money, (but) the big deal is you save your grass."

Compared to the previous two options, he said, early weaning is likely to net more money for a ranch.

"And the longer the drought is, it seems to make more sense," he said.

By contrast, feeding a herd through a drought becomes less profitable the longer the dry spell continues.

"I'd argue against it in the long term," Ritten said, encouraging people to keep their thoughts toward the future when developing a drought plan. "Where do you want to be in 10 years? Make the decisions you need to in order to get there."

He used several models to demonstrate other options and outcomes based on market prices, weather conditions and herd makeup, all of which was informative to Mandi Hirsch and Jim Haverkamp, specialists with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"It was an excellent talk," said Haverkamp, who specializes in range management. "I learned a lot."

Hirsch said she would use Ritten's information to make recommendations to the producers she works with on a regular basis.

"He was really knowledgeable," she said. "And it was really applicable in today's conditions."

She said a lot of people in Wyoming didn't expect the drought in 2012, so they were more likely to be more reactive in planning for the season. This year, she hopes people will be able to plan ahead like Ritten recommended.

Another drought talk is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday. To hear more about Ritten's presentation, call 766-3373 or e-mail jritten@uwyo.edu.

Farm and Ranch Days will continue Thursday with lessons on pesticides, dinners from the garden, food preservation fundamentals, renewable energy options and more. At noon, Wyoming State Veterinarian Jim Logan will speak about issues in agriculture.

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