Drought forces ranchers into tough, desperate decisions
GILLETTE — A cloud of dust kicked up as Cass Hurley shuffled down a small hill in the middle of the 320-acre ranch she and her husband operate off North Heptner Road in Rozet. It’s not far beyond where the county stops maintaining the road.
The only problem with the scene was that, ideally, there would have been no dust. The hill she descended was the interior bank of a reservoir. Her boots should have been wet, but instead were covered with a fresh layer of dust. The reservoir is one of the three the couple have on the backside of their ranch, and each is bone-dry.
They mostly dried up last summer, with one holding on until the fall. But ultimately, none were a match for above-average temperatures, constant wind and no rainfall.
“It’s never been that low,” said Colton Hurley, almost as if he couldn’t actually believe it. “I’ve never seen it that low.”
The Hurleys are facing struggles many ranchers in Campbell County share. Their ranch, their little slice of heaven for which they make so many sacrifices, had been burnt to a crisp, like a pie left in the oven too long. The crust of the earth was brittle and parched, desperate for moisture that seemed hell-bent to remain in the clouds. And with every step they took, the remaining vegetation crackled and snapped underfoot.
That same rain-starved land was home to the Hurleys’ many sheep and cows, and there seemed to be fewer and fewer as each day passed.
They’d had to sell off 10 pairs of cows and calves, as well as two other cows, just two weeks ago.
“We’ve had no grass grow since we kicked them out or since they’ve been done calving this spring,” Cass said. “Usually this time of year it’s lush green. I mean, you kick them out to pasture and they’re good in that pasture for a month or so, but this year, we had no grass even to start with.”
The contraction of the herd also may not be done.
“If we don’t get any (rain), we’ll probably have to sell more,” Colton said.
Ranchers, certainly, and even casual observers in Campbell County know it’s been dry a long time. There’s been some level of drought conditions — abnormally dry (D0), moderate drought (D1) or severe drought (D2) — consistently in the county since May 2020.
On June 8, just 10 days before Cass Hurley kicked up that cloud of dust stepping into a mockery of a reservoir, the U.S. Drought Monitor upgraded Campbell County to a D3, or extreme, drought.
The circle of life on a ranch, like anywhere else, depends on water. But this past fall and winter were too mild and very little snow fell, which didn’t do much to alleviate drought conditions that had been worsening as 2020 marched toward 2021. This past spring was likewise mild, with warm temperatures arriving earlier than expected and climbing higher than normal for this time of the year.
Wind, a constant presence on the high plains, was unsurprisingly strong and unrelenting. The conditions amounted to a perfect storm, or more accurately, the perfect lack of storms.
The ground struggled to sustain the grass that it grew, and in Rozet it had long since lost its green lushness. The cows were out of luck. No grass meant no meals, unless the owners bought hay. With every ranch in the region suffering similarly, the demand for hay had exploded. Prices are through the roof already and still climbing.
As a result, ranchers all over the county are faced with the same dilemma: Hold on to their cattle stock at exorbitant expense or sell off at a loss. Economics have dictated the answer for most ranchers, and it’s meant selling earlier than they wanted.
Matthew Perry started ranching officially when he was 13 years old. That’s when the 27-year-old remembered first getting paid for working on his family’s cattle operation, which covers about 16,000 acres spread between ranches in Sheridan, Mule Creek Junction and north of Moorcroft.
Perry said that for as far back as he can remember, whenever one of those three locations might be struggling, he and his family could always count on one of the others being in better shape. That’s how he knows this is one of the worst years he’s ever seen.
“We do everything we can to keep our pairs,” Perry said. “We had to buy hay last year, and it’s probably one of the first times I’ve seen us buy as much hay as we did.”
The worst part of the whole thing was the cows didn’t even eat it, he said. It’s cause for concern this year when ranchers might be relying on hay for more months than normal.
“This year we’re trying to plan out how to buy hay,” Perry said.
It’s not an easy calculation, especially considering the prices.
“I had to write the check last year, and I’m just a ranch hand, and, uh, that was a bigger check than I’ve ever gotten, I know that much. I couldn’t believe it.”
Perry said the hay comes from far and wide.
“Wherever you can get it, usually,” he said. “Montana does a lot of it. Nebraska does a lot. South Dakota. They were trucking it easily 300 miles one way for what we got last year.”
Back at the Hurleys’ place, hay also was driving their decisions. In a normal year, Colton said they’d start feeding hay in November and go until late May.
“Last year, it was dry and bad, and we had to start feeding hay in September,” he said.
Conditions are so bad this year that if they hadn’t sold off, they’d have had to start feeding hay by late June or early July, he said.
Hay prices are a constant talking point among the ranchers, and each has heard different worst-case scenarios for where the prices will go. They loom like ominous predictors of what’s to come. Colton has heard of prices reaching $300 a ton in South Dakota. Last year, he said he’d bought hay at about $120-$130, which included transportation costs.
Chad Burch of the Burch Rodeo Co. said he’s heard similar predictions about hay prices.
“Hay is outrageous in price,” he said. “And it’s only going to get worse. Whatever a guy has to feed in the wintertime has to be pretty valuable to him.”
The value proposition of his livestock is at the forefront of his mind. It’s cows versus horses in the struggle over limited resources.
“A cow’s way more valuable as far as what they’re worth just to get rid of one,” Burch said. “Horse ain’t worth much, unless it’s a saddle horse. All ours are bucking horses. When you got 800 bucking horses and nobody can ride them, they ain’t worth much.”
On the ranch, it’s essentially a situation of robbing Peter to pay Paul. The less valuable horses are eating the grass that should be feeding the more valuable cattle. As a result, Burch is selling 150 of his horses, and eventually some of the cows will have to go, too.
Just up the road from the Hurleys sits another 320-acre ranch belonging to Jerry and Heidi Vossler. Early one morning last week the Hurleys made the trip to help the Vosslers work their cattle.
Though they were artificially inseminating a few of their cows, which rings hopeful for the future, the Vosslers hadn’t been able to avoid the inevitable consequences of the harsh drought conditions. They’d already sold off 57 pairs of cows and calves in the same year of their biggest-ever herd.
But they saw the writing on the wall months ago.
“It was probably March,” Heidi said. “It was too nice for too long. It was going to get ugly in a hurry.”
Heidi spoke with a sadness that seemed to be most strongly influenced by the thought of what the hard times were doing to her husband.
“He’s sold back to nothing two times already in his life already, so this year we’re not selling back to nothing,” she said.
Heidi looked across the way at her husband as he worked. Selling back to nothing was tough on him, she said. Ranching was his dream.
She was determined to help him keep hold of his dream.
“It’s in your blood,” she said of ranching and the lifestyle that goes with it. “It’s just flat in your blood.”
“With ranching, you take the ups and downs,” Cass said, nodding the entire time Heidi spoke. “That’s just part of it.”
Heidi nodded right back, as if no truer words had ever been spoken.
“Sometimes it’s just not perfect,” she said. “You shed a tear and pull up your big-girl pants and you go on.”
They don’t question the whys, they simply adjust and persevere.
“We do it for the love of it,” Heidi said. “Because 320 acres and a little herd of cows and a little herd of sheep — it’s not enough.”
Cass, looking over at Colton, nodded along. Heidi’s words applied to them, too.
“It’s not enough to support itself,” Cass said, making an all-encompassing gesture at her surroundings. “We all four have jobs outside of the ranch to support our ranching habit.”
They all laughed, for no matter how absurd it might sound on the surface, that assessment carried a lot of truth.
“But if we won the lottery, we would ranch until it was all gone,” Heidi said.
More laughter. More nods of agreement. They were kindred spirits, these two ranching families, holding on with everything they had to a way of life that was not for the faint of heart.
Randy Rossman has a 5,000-acre ranch near Newcastle, but he went to work at the Keeline Ranch when he was 12 years old, nearly 60 years ago now. He, and many ranchers in the know, said that Newcastle seems to be faring better than most of Campbell County when it comes to rain this year. He hasn’t had to sell off due to recent conditions, but he said that when they “brake-checked” last year, they’d “cut pretty deep.”
As a result, he was running under capacity. He figured they could run 50-100 more head of cattle. But he considered it prudent that he wasn’t.
“As a rancher, you’ve got to be careful not to be so overstocked once a drought hits, because when you’ve got to sell when the drought’s on, you’re going to lose your ass,” Rossman said.
Kay Hodson and her husband C.J. had to sell off 45 pairs of cows weeks ago. They have 230 acres on which they calve, but during the summer and fall they lease pastureland.
“We’ll try to buy back, but right now we’re just very doubtful about it,” Hodson said.
They’ve seen tough times before, but this year feels different.
“I don’t remember it ever being this bad two years in a row,” she said.
Hodson compared it to 2011 and 2012 in Casper, where they were living at the time, but said it wasn’t quite as bad as this.
Despite the drought and struggles it puts on ranchers, her 12-year-old grandson, Wyatt Fenner, wants to be a cowboy.
“He just loves this life,” she said. “He wants it so bad. He says he’s going to get a ranch. And I’m like, ‘More power to you.’”
She’s hopeful for him. Ranching favors the hopeful. Like a dominant trait passed down, hopefulness seems a necessary trait for ranchers. How else could they have survived for so long in the face of long odds?
A storm blew into Gillette on Wednesday evening, riding along a cold front that would present a brief respite from high temperatures before they’d rise again. It was too small to deliver any meaningful relief.
But it was a subtle reminder of how quickly things can change. That knowledge never seems to leave the ranchers. It’s a hard truth proven year after year of fiercely cold winters and desperately dry summers. It’s hard to tell just how bad 2021 really is out there by talking to them.
“Well, through the years, there’s been droughts, there’s been good years and medium years,” Rossman said matter-of-factly, as much as prediction for the future as a recitation of what’s past.
“We’re going to survive, I’d like to think,” Burch said. “Unless it does it again next year.”
“Like my granddad and dad said, ‘There’s always next year,’” Perry said. “‘Just got to hope for next year. Got to keep doing what you can. If you got to sell, you got to sell, and then just hope you can buy again.’”
Grandparents can deliver wisdom like that. Younger generations listen because they know their elders are made of hardy stuff.
Wyatt Fenner, the Hodson’s grandson, might just be another to carry on.
“It makes me want to do it even more,” Wyatt said of the current tough conditions that saw his grandparents sell off. “I want to feel it for myself and be able to do it and see if I can overcome like these other people couldn’t.”
He’s a perfect cowboy in miniature, and he does not doubt for a second what he says.
“The only thing I could say is the Good Lord is going to control, and He’ll give us moisture when we really need it,” Rossman said.
He’s a perfect cowboy in full and doesn’t doubt for a second what he says.
Ranching is a lifestyle that tests the faithful. At its root, it’s nothing if not an act of faith. Faith in a higher power. Faith in the weather. Faith in the market. Faith in a turnaround, a rebound, a comeback. Faith in what’s next — the next week, the next month, the next year, the next generation.
If the next generation is made up of the likes of Wyatt, it appears that ranching in Campbell County is in good hands, no matter the weather.