Local ranchers feel COVID crunch

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Sophia Goedert Photo

MEEKER | COVID-19 has affected everyone one way or another. Whether it’s school transitioning online, restaurants closing, or people getting laid off, no one has emerged from this pandemic unscathed. 

Cow, pig, and sheep ranchers have all been hit and are going to continue to take large losses through the fall. Meeker is fortunate to have an abundance of ranches with a wide variety of markets for their livestock. There are feedlots, big-name stores, and private buyers, but this year the process of selling livestock is like no other. Local sheep rancher Anthony Theos described how his daily life changed due to COVID-19. 

“It was hard to wrap my head around how quickly things were going downhill.”

Peruvian laborers are a huge help to sheep ranchers, but this year the Theos operation was short two men out of a five-man crew. It was pure luck that their fourth man was able to fly in. When you have thousands of sheep, every hand helps, especially when you have to dock all of those lambs. Theos said he can usually get by with his Peruvians but this year, for the first time, he had to hire a couple local kids to help. 

Anthony Theos said the wool market is non-existent this year. —Sophia Goedert Photo

One of the more gripping aspects of his story was how COVID-19 affected his wool clippings. Theos has some of the best wool around, he said. 

“It’s very unique; clean, long, and fine.” 

This year his wool is sitting in a warehouse in Texas due to a non-existent wool market. 

“I’ve never had this happen before. You get two checks a year; one for wool, and one for sheep.” 

If he were to sell it he would take a 50% loss on the wool alone, but the bottleneck at the packing plants is what hurts ranchers the most. With the plants having limited help, animals were getting fed way above the ideal butchering weight, which in turn only hurts more because of the cost to cut extra fat off the sheep. That’s why Theos’s deal with Whole Foods is so important, 

“We cut the middle guy out and as soon as they come off the mountain they get processed and are in stores the next week.” 

Unfortunately only half of his sheep went to Whole Foods. The other half took a more direct hit to pricing. They are in a feedlot waiting for sale, which in normal years can be risky but usually pays off. Not this year. In 2019 a lamb was about $1.50 per pound, whereas this year it can range from 85 cents to $1 per pound. He isn’t the only rancher in Meeker experiencing the impacts of COVID-19. 

Restaurant closures cut Tom and Lisa Walsh’s restaurant pork sales to zero.—Sophia Goedert Photo

Tom and Lisa Walsh were impacted as soon as the precautions were set in place. In previous years they sold their pigs directly to restaurants from Steamboat all the way to Beaver Creek and beyond. 

“At the end of February I called Lisa and said it’s over,” Tom said. “The lights were off so I stuffed it in their freezer and the next day I got a text from the Hyatt saying they wouldn’t do any further business until the first of June. Now they won’t be opening until the first of  December.” 

Their restaurant revenue went to zero instantly. There was a point in the middle where there was some hope for restaurants re-opening to the point where he could start selling again, but that died quickly. The Walsh’s are just now starting to sell to a few places again. Recently he started selling both cattle and pigs to a newly opened butcher shop in Avon. 

 Walsh uses Mountain Meats for processing so he doesn’t have to deal with the corporate plants and all of their inconsistencies this year. He said it would be nice if everyone could see their way to only using smaller packing plants and get away from corporate altogether, but the U.S. is a long while from that happening. Walsh mentioned that back East, Smithfield packing plants euthanized 200,000 pigs a day for 30 days straight because they didn’t have the help to process all of that pork.

For cattle rancher Coley Turner, the bottleneck at meat packing plants cut prices 25%. —Sophia Goedert Photo

Cattle ranchers have also been  impacted, and they will get struck even harder this fall. Coley Turner saw first-hand the mess the packing plants made this year. 

“That’s where it hurt the most. It cost us a 25% drop in prices because of the huge bottleneck.” 

He hasn’t taken the full hit yet but expects to have to hold a larger portion of their calf crop over to next year and take the huge drop that is coming their way this fall. He did however say that it was a big help being able to have kids home earlier than usual due to distanced learning. He also experienced a little increase in local sales from his usual 15-20 people that buy yearly. Unfortunately the cattle people have a long road ahead of them for this fall. 

One common factor that prevailed through all of this for ranchers is the fact that animals still come first. As a rancher you are married to your lifestyle. It’s 24/7 —— long days and early mornings — but the commitment never falters. It’s something most people take for granted. Hopefully this pandemic will make more people realize how important farmers and ranchers really are.

By SOPHIA GOEDERT | Special to the Herald Times