Ready for Rain

As winter gave way to spring the ponds, usually filled by runoff, continued to require filling. As a pond begins to dry up it can present a variety of dangers to livestock, who in desperation to get a drink, may find themselves trapped in the mud. Jen Hill Photo

As early season wildfires engulf huge swaths of the San Juans, ranchers in Rio Blanco County battle other side effects of drought conditions

These pictures compare the same spot on the range from a typical year and during drought. The difference in plant cover speaks for itself.

RBC | While Rio Blanco County may not yet register high enough on the drought scale to initiate federal assistance, the effects of the incredibly dry conditions continue to be felt by area ranchers. An exceptionally dry year can mean many things for those in the livestock business, bringing both short term complications and long term impacts.

At the Cripple Cowboy Cow Outfit, located on the western end of the county, the first drought challenge has simply been getting enough water to the cows to keep them healthy. The ranch began hiring water trucks to fill livestock ponds in December. Typically these cows would spend the winter getting most of their water from snow, but without the snow cover other sources were needed.



Because the drought conditions limit available forage the ranch, like many others in western Colorado, has been forced to reduce herd size. For the Cripple Cowboy this meant selling any cows that had not calved by early June. Unfortunately, with so many ranches forced to take a similar route, the price for these bred cows will be low.

– Without snowpack, many of the natural springs that supply water to ranches won’t run this year.

– Cows will require more active management to make sure they stay in feed and water.

– Pumping water will continue to be necessary.

– Soon, it will also become necessary to supplement cows with hay as limited grass in the fields gives way.

– Cattle hang around what few water options there are in drought years, unwilling to travel far for feed. This means the grass in a two mile radius around these watering holes quickly disappears, leaving cattle hungry.

– As water sources dwindle, feral horses in the West Douglas Herd Area will soon face a desperate situation. According to local rancher Jon Hill, “If it doesn’t start raining soon and heavy, areas like Douglas Creek will really be in bad shape by fall from overuse by the horses. That means cattle and wild game won’t have feed this winter.”


A grim outlook …

USDA NRCS Snowpack in the Yampa, White and North Platte basins is below normal at 33 percent of the median. Precipitation for May was 49 percent of average and water year-to-date precipitation is 83 percent of average. Reservoir storage at the end of May was 115 percent of average compared to 113 percent last year. Streamflow forecasts range from 83 percent of average for the North Platte at Northgate to 32 percent for Elkhead Creek above Long Gulch.