ELKO COUNTY – It’s been a long winter for Elko County cattlemen and their livestock as freezing cold temperatures have solidified snow packs on the range.
“This has been quite a winter. It’s been pretty brutal,” said Duane Coombs, who manages Big Springs Ranch located half way between Wells and West Wendover.
Keeping cattle fed is one of the challenges ranchers face, but adding prolonged freezing cold temperatures after each snowfall has created difficulties that Coombs said reminds him of stories he heard from his father.
“I grew up listening to my dad talk about the winter of 1949 when they had the hay drop,” he said. “He was on the receiving end when they kicked hay out to the cows.”
The Blizzard of 1949 prompted Operation Haylift, in which bales of hay were dropped from C-82 Flying Boxcars over grazing areas in rural Nevada.
People are also reading…
Coombs said for the winter of 2023 he has relied on bulldozers to cut through snow drifts, estimating it took 120 hours on the equipment in early January to create lanes “just so we can get to the animals.”
He said another challenge was bringing cattle back from the pasture across 25-30 miles on frozen land. “Dealing with a lot of sore-footed cows.”
Storms push cattle farther out from their pastures and into rugged terrain, making it difficult for ranchers to rescue them.
“When these storms come in, the cattle drift with the wind, some of them into the hills and are where they couldn’t get out,” he said.
Jon Griggs, manager of the Maggie Creek Ranch and president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, said ranchers “have faced serious difficulties getting to their cattle and getting feed to them and/or getting them to feed.”
Most ranchers Coombs said he spoke with were fearful of losing cattle that they could not reach. One rancher was flown over his spread to locate his cattle and told Coombs, “I don’t know how I’m going to get to them.”
Another fear is the financial loss that has yet to be officially tallied. Operating costs are already high, Coombs explained, but this winter had added an additional expense for livestock feed.
“I had purchased almost three years’ worth of hay of what we normally use, and I’m just to the bottom of the haystack now,” he said. “Those feed costs are significant.”
Griggs added that ranchers are having supply-chain issues in addition to equipment shortages.
“We’re facing much of the same supply chain bottlenecks that have plagued the rest of the country,” Griggs said. “It’s hard to find trucks to haul hay or cattle, so that makes it doubly hard to keep cattle on feed. “
“Culling herds, rationing of hay supplies, supplemental protein in pellets, tubs, or blocks are all strategies we’re using to get by,” Griggs added.
Coombs said production could be affected beyond this winter due to calving losses.
Although many people are enduring personal and financial challenges this winter, Coombs said people don’t speak up about it until they hear someone else talk about their problems. “It’s been brutal on everybody.”
“There’s a lot of people in the county that are struggling, or hurting that will never tell you they are,” he said. “Several people I’ve talked to say, ‘I’m sure glad to hear that because we’ve been going through this, too.”
“There’s more people suffering than we’ll ever know because they just suck it up,” Coombs continued.
Griggs said ranchers are “making due, finding more hay and finding a way to pay for it – it’s very expensive this year – and keeping cattle fed because we plan for this kind of thing.”
Not knowing how many stranded cattle have died also makes the future harder to predict.
“It’s hard to know yet what losses are,” Griggs said. “Care for our livestock comes before we care for ourselves and the inability to get to some areas of the state is a nightmare.”
The heavy winter caught everyone off guard. Ranchers begin planning how to stock winter feed for their cattle herds in the early summer. they harvest hay and check pastures to determine if it is “suitable for winter grazing.” Ranchers then decide whether to purchase hay or land, or reduce the size of the herds by selling brood females. Sometimes, it’s a combination of all three methods, Griggs explained.
Griggs and Coombs said they have received support from various businesses and agencies, including J.J. Goicoechea and the Nevada Department of Agriculture.
“We appreciate the support of Dr. Goicoechea and the Department of Agriculture. Hopefully there is relief on the way for the producers who need it,” Griggs said.
Coombs credited Legarza Exploration for “saving a lot of cows” when Big Springs Ranch called the heavy equipment company for help.
“They dropped everything and got us machines going that morning,” he said.
The plight of western cattle ranches reached Washington, D.C., and U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto led a delegation to urge the USDA’s Farm Service Agency “to utilize all tools and powers at its disposal to assist Nevada farmers and ranchers impacted by extreme winter weather.”
Signed by Sen. Jacky Rosen and House Representatives Mark Amodei, Dina Titus Susie Lee, and Steven Horsford, the legislation states that the “Eastern Nevada Basin has received 210% of its average yearly snowfall. Prolonged blizzard and winter conditions have caused major travel disruptions throughout the state, limited access to food sources, severe livestock stress, and increased livestock mortality.
“We write to you today regarding ongoing winter weather conditions in the Mountain West region, as well as the severe impact that it is having on farmers and ranchers in Nevada,” the lawmakers said.
Coombs said despite the never-ending winter and the uncertainty facing him and his fellow ranchers, he has seen the people and ranching partners such as the Bureau of Land Management and mining companies coming together to help their neighbors and community members.
“Hopefully were kind of on the back end of this,” Coombs said. “But we’re going to make it. We’ll rebuild, we’ll restock and we’ll move on.”
In the meantime, the National Weather Service is predicting that temperatures will continue to run below normal and more snowstorms will arrive before spring brings the possibility of flooding.