Ag Census cattle figures for Routt County difficult to explain
Steamboat Springs — The most recent Census of Agriculture was decidedly positive for Routt County.
It showed more farms, more acreage in farms and greater total sales of agricultural products produced here in 2012 than 2007.
The 2012 Census also showed a dramatic increase in cattle in Routt County, from 22,397 in 2007 to 37,231 in 2012, but Routt County Extension Office staff had difficulty accounting for such a huge jump in cattle during that year’s historic drought.
In fact, the figures reported in the Census could be attributable, in whole or part, to a statistical oddity as much as they could to a real increase in Routt County cattle ranching.
Almost all of that 14,834 increase, according to the Census, came from ranches with more than 500 head of cattle.
In 2007, the Census showed nine ranches that had more than 500 head of cattle and attributed a total of 8,443 cows to them. In 2012, those figures skyrocketed: 22,854 cows were attributed to 21 farms with more than 500 head of cattle each.
As the Census further breaks down cattle by type, the largest jump was in “other cattle” (an increase of 10,454) rather than beef cattle (an increase of 4,382).
The Census only defines other cattle as including “heifers that had not calved, steers, calves and bulls.”
Routt County extension agent Todd Hagenbuch was not able to pinpoint any operations he knew of that would be able to account for the increase of large ranches or the spike in overall cattle figures.
The drought in 2012 pushed up prices for hay and cattle but also made it more difficult for ranchers to feed and water their stock.
“The drought really upset the applecart,” Bill Meyer, director of the mountain region for the National Agricultural Statistics Service, said about the timing of the Census.
Meyer said that his NASS office maintains a list of farms to contact for the Census from multiple sources and that building the list is an ongoing job.
According to Meyer, the number one issue that the Census runs into with Colorado’s mountain counties is responses not being consistent year to year because of shifts in production or headquarters.
“Whoever is responding puts where their most value of production is,” Meyer said.
One year that could be in Routt County, he said, while in previous years, it was in a different location. Grazing areas could change or be separate from the operation’s headquarters. Absentee owners could change what they put as their location of most production.
“It’s just an issue we have to live with,” he said.
Public lands likely do not account for any increases in the number of cattle grazing in Routt County.
Routt National Forest rangeland management specialist Erik Taylor said that sheep accounts for most of the grazing in the Hahn’s Peak/Bears Ears and Yampa ranger districts.
“The numbers of cattle have been pretty stable for a number of years,” Taylor said, adding that 2012’s drought led to some producers downsizing herds.
Statistical error could be introduced through the process the NASS uses to account for farmers who don’t respond to the Census.
While participation in the Census is required by law, Meyer said, the rate for Colorado is about 80 percent.
For those that don’t respond, NASS comes up with an estimate for production based on history from previous Census returns and farms of similar size and type.
“We have to come up with some system to account for nonresponse,” Meyer said. “It’s called the census, but it’s not. There’s imputed data in there.”
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