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‘Maybe we’ll be here next year’
Longtime cattle rancher Dennis Horton said his herd was noticeably thinner this fall when he brought his livestock in from the range to his place on North Muddy Road about 30 miles north of Riverton. Photos by Wayne Nicholls

'Maybe we'll be here next year'

Nov 10, 2013 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Early winter snowstorms have been disastrous this year for ranchers in eastern Wyoming and South Dakota, but in Fremont County the wet weather is seen as a sign of hope for next season.

"Most definitely this fall moisture is a blessing," Riverton rancher Chris Martin said. "We cannot stand another summer like we had this summer."

The Wind River Basin experienced drought conditions this year, with precipitation levels at 4 percent of normal in June and 5 percent of normal in August for the Riverton area.

The area saw .05 inch and .03 inch of precipitation those months, respectively.

The lack of rain left local rangelands dry and forced many ranchers to gather up their cattle sooner than usual.

"We had to come home 45 days early because our feed was gone," Martin said. "Normally we don't come home until December, and we've been home for a week now. ... From an economic standpoint that's huge."

Martin will have to provide hay or stored feed for his herd during the extra month and a half - and he said the animals are hungry for the nourishment.

"The cows coming home are thinner than probably they've ever been," Martin said.

Dennis Horton, who also brought his herd in several weeks early this year, said his cattle didn't look as healthy as they usually do, either.

"I'm not used to having cows that don't look entirely in good shape," Horton said.

"Not that I always keep them fat, but they're darn sure way thinner. And their calves were a lot lighter too. It affected us dramatically as far as no water in the summer."

Good dose of wet

Dry summers aren't so strange for Fremont County, however. What was more unusual this year, according to Horton, was the weather in September and October.

The National Weather Service shows more than three times the normal level of precipitation fell in Riverton in September, with more than seven inches of snow recorded that month.

Almost 18 inches of snow -- more than two times the normal level of precipitation -- fell in Riverton in October.

"It's been a while since we had this much moisture in the fall," Horton said.

He was glad the snowstorms were followed by warmer weather. If temperatures had stayed cold, Horton said Fremont County ranchers could have seen the same kinds of losses as their peers to the east.

"We couldn't get to (the cattle) for one thing," Horton said. "And they just didn't have enough to eat. But it warmed right back up, and the grass started growing after that snowstorm faster than it had all year."

Better 2014 outlook

Both Horton and Martin said the water that has been stored in the soil this fall should make for a better growing season next summer.

"We're hoping this moisture we've gotten, a lot of it will be here this spring, and when the ground warms up things will just take off," Martin said. "It doesn't take much moisture for this desert to green up and flourish."

The positive outlook should keep cattle prices high, which will help with increased feeding expenses due to the drought.

"It's nice to have the prices up, so maybe we'll still be here next year," Martin said.

'I'm cowless'

The rate will make it difficult for other ranchers to recover from the dry season, though. Farmer and rancher Rich Pingetzer had to sell all of his livestock last spring, when land he usually leases for his animals was unavailable.

"It was so dry (that the landowner) kept it for his own cows," Pingetzer said. "I don't blame him; we just couldn't find any other pasture. So now I'm cowless ... for the first time in my whole entire life."

He said he doesn't anticipate buying back any cattle this year, either.

"Everything's got good moisture now (so) cow prices will be way high," Pingetzer said. "Everyone will want back in. ... So I really don't know. We'll just kind of wing it, I guess."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the value of the livestock inventory in Fremont County is $131.5 million. As of Jan. 1, 2013, the county was home to 95,000 head of cattle and calves, down from 100,000 in 2012, 96,000 in 2011 and 97,000 in 2010.

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