This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The next disaster for Utah ranchers whose lands have been ravaged by drought and massive wildfires: having to sell off their cattle because they cannot afford feed.
Hay has doubled in price over the past year, and while state and federal officials have promised help from a variety of programs, there's little immediate aid.
"There's no quick fix for this," said Jim Ekker, president of the Utah Cattlemen's Association. "The only place ranchers can go right now is to their bankers."
Although the fire season is only half over, the number of cattle already taken off summer ranges has topped 44 percent of the state's livestock inventory - compared with 17 percent at the same time last year, according to a National Agricultural Statistics Service report released this week. The five-year average for livestock taken off ranges by July 29 is 12 percent.
Some ranchers can turn their livestock onto private pastures, but that usually doesn't occur until the fall. Pastures in turn, will be depleted early, so producers will have to buy hay - if they aren't making the purchases already, said Ekker.
"This is disastrous for ranchers in this state," said Ekker of the state's No. 1 agricultural industry. "People are going to go out of business."
Days after the Salt Creek fire, Nephi rancher Jim Ockey said he'll have to sell off his 60 cattle because he cannot afford to buy hay or repair burned fences to keep his herd from roaming onto public roads.
Ranchers say the sell-offs will mean the loss of livestock especially bred to adapt to Utah's harsh, arid ranges. Rebuilding herds will take many, many years.
Rangelands and pastures throughout the state are in such poor condition that forage is severely limited for grazing, according to the statistical service report. Only 11 percent of the state's ranges and pastures are listed in good or normal condition - compared to more than half the state's grazing lands listed in good condition at the same time last year.
"Ranges and pastures aren't doing well at all," said Kerry McBride, deputy director of the statistics service. "Fewer cattle can be grazed on these lands."
Drought also is taking its toll on topsoil and subsoil. More than 30 percent of the topsoil and subsoil is so dry that the land cannot support growth, while moisture content in more than 40 percent of the soils is so low that grasses and shrubs cannot thrive, according to the report.
Utah Agriculture Commissioner Leonard Blackham said 25 of the state's 29 counties are suffering from severe drought. Only Sevier, Grand, Wayne and Daggett Counties have escaped extreme drought conditions, but those areas also are adversely impacted because all are surrounded by counties with extreme drought.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has asked the Agriculture secretary to declare Utah a disaster area, which would qualify farmers and ranchers for low-cost loans. That request is pending.
Ranchers may qualify for federal financial assistance to regenerate private or tribal grazing lands charred by the recent wildfires. So far, $100,000 is available and another $1 million has been requested, although it is uncertain whether the latter amount will be approved, federal officials said.
The money is for a one-time prescribed grazing incentive payment of $11 per acre to assist with the natural regeneration of burned-out lands through rest and exclusion of grazing until Oct. 1, 2008. The incentive is limited to 2,500 acres per individual.
For more information, visit http://www.ut.nrcs.usda.gov. The deadline for application is Aug. 14 at noon.