Routt County cattle ranchers call 2010 an exceptionally good year
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Steamboat Springs — The struggles and successes of Routt County ranchers bring to mind Sisyphus, an ancient king who, according to Greek mythology, the gods condemned to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity, only to see the boulder roll back down the hill each time, just before reaching its peak.
At the end of 2010, the boulder is very near that peak — but cattle ranchers from the Little Snake River Valley to Toponas know it could fall again, anytime.
“We’ve experienced the highest cattle prices probably ever,” said South Routt County rancher Wayne Shoemaker, of Yampa Valley Beef, referring to the past year. “But having said that, input costs are higher and higher.”
Nonetheless, ranchers across the county agreed last week that 2010 was a banner year for beef and lamb prices. Global, national and regional factors are accounting for the trend, which many say is moving upward at a greater, longer rate than the normal swing of cattle price cycles. The good prices are allowing some Routt County ranchers to pay bills, invest in equipment and even put some money in the bank, while also signaling a potential long-term rebound for the agriculture business in Northwest Colorado and beyond.
But ranching’s costs and challenges remain.
Shoemaker said one such cost is the increasing price of fuel. Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, who ranches in West Routt, also noted that cost. Monger said at $3 per gallon of gas, it’s easy to burn $150 in fuel per day, per tractor. When running four or five tractors, that quickly can eat up a bottom line, as can increasing land costs, no matter how high the cattle prices. And those tractors need to be fixed.
“I had a pretty good year with the sales of my cows, but I had a pretty awful year with the repair and maintenance of my equipment,” said John Weibel, of Rockin J Cattle in North Routt, explaining that he spent about $30,000 on repairs this year. That’s nearly triple his typical annual repair costs.
“Overall, it’s been a great year for cattle prices, and most cattle producers should be very happy,” Weibel said. “Nothing to complain about.”
“It’s as good a year for beef and lamb prices as we’ve had in a long time,” echoed CJ Mucklow, of the Routt County Extension Office.
Eamon O’Toole raises cattle, sheep, horses, dogs and children on Salisbury Ranch in North Routt’s Little Snake valley. He said sheep prices are at record highs. O’Toole cited factors including the death of at least 100,000 sheep because of September storms in New Zealand; increasing immigration into the American Midwest; and trade negotiations with South Korea, part of potentially booming Asian markets for American beef.
“There’s just getting to be too many mouths to feed in the world,” O’Toole said Tuesday, using a foot to rock 6-week-old McCoy O’Toole, his first child, in a portable cradle.
“It’s a good time to be in the ag business,” he said.
Herd low, demand high
As beef demand increases, national cattle numbers are flat or decreasing.
“The American herd is down,” rancher Jo Stanko said last week. “The number of cattle is down, overall, across the nation. … There’s been a great deal of discussion about how we need to rebuild the herds.”
Stanko said she’s been learning about that discussion through publications including Forbes, Western Livestock Journal, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association updates and The Progressive Farmer, among others.
She said cattle prices are trending upward more than normal.
“That’s what I’ve been reading,” she said. “As long as our herd is lower … then the demand will stay more steady.”
Monger explained how the demand translates to dollars.
He said about three years ago, a 550-pound steer cost about $1.10 per pound, or about $605. Current prices, he said, are about $1.25 per pound for that steer, or about $687.
Multiply that $82 difference by a herd of 100, and the results are apparent.
“Eight thousand dollars for a rancher in a marginal operation, like we’ve been having … is big dollars for us to continue on in our operation,” Monger said.
He talked earlier last week about the impacts of those dollars.
“We’re finally able to pay off some of our bills and invest in new equipment,” Monger said. “I’m really surprised.”
South Routt rancher Dean Rossi said the prices are changing how some ranchers think about sales and the yearly calendar.
“Some of us sold a little earlier than we should have, but that’s the way it goes,” Rossi said. “I always say, I’d rather wish I hadn’t than wish I had.”
Like O’Toole, Rossi cited worldwide demand factors and negotiations with South Korea.
“Everything has a trickle-down effect, somewhere,” Rossi said.
In North Routt, Ryan Wood, of Sweetwood Cattle Co., said they’re getting 25 to 30 orders a day for holiday gift packages of beef, which they ship across the country.
“We’re pleasantly surprised,” Wood said.
Monger said it’s uncertain how long the upward trend will continue.
“This cycle has been exceptionally different,” Monger said. “We don’t know where this new trend is going.”
Monger said the biggest problem for some Routt County beef producers now could be acreage.
“I could expand my herd tomorrow if I could find places to go with them,” he said.
‘Guns were drawn’
Belying Monger’s optimistic projection, Weibel said he’s had to reduce his herd and his ranch in recent years.
Weibel said Rockin J Cattle has moved from the Little Snake valley to a smaller ranch farther south on Routt County Road 129, in the Mad Creek area.
He’s cut his staff to one part-time employee, he said, while “trying to recover from four years of bad employees, cattle rustlers and guns being pointed in my face.”
Weibel said a few years ago, he was moving cattle from one section of the Little Snake ranch to another when people showed up to take the cattle, and “guns were drawn.”
He declined to talk about specifics of the incident, saying only that a 911 call took too long to get a response on scene and, in his direct experience, the Wild West remains alive in Northwest Colorado.
That led to “a downward cycle of bad employees and cattle disappearing,” he said, on top of this year’s $30,000 in maintenance costs and the loss of 30 cattle “to something.”
Weibel summed up that misfortune stoically.
“There’s still challenges in the beef business,” he said.
Weibel then cited an old saw from a pioneering Routt County rancher — indicating just how often Sisyphus’s boulder rolls back down the hill.
“John Fetcher used to say we make money one out of every 10 years in ranching,” Weibel said. “For him, it probably would have been this year.”