Arizona ranchers hoping for a good summer, despite ongoing drought

March 11, 2013

Last year, farmers and ranchers across the country grappled with a devastating drought. With the hot summer months closer than many of us care to admit, KJZZ’s Nick Blumberg reports on how dry weather in Arizona affects crops and cattle. 

Right now, the U.S. Drought Monitor says all 15 of Arizona's counties are experiencing drought conditions, from moderate to extreme. That’s not likely to surprise anyone who’s spent time in Arizona over the past decade.

“Drought here in Arizona is nothing new to the farming and ranching community -- however, it still has a big impact on the industry,” said Patrick Bray, Executive Vice President of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association.

Patrick Bray Patrick Bray, Executive Vice President of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, poses in front of a map of Arizona made from cow hide. (Photo by Nick Blumberg - KJZZ)

Most of the farms in Arizona are irrigated, so dry spells are more likely to hurt ranchers. Little rain means less feed grows on rangeland, feed prices go way up, and -- you guessed it -- so does the price of beef.

But Bray said it’s not all bad news for consumers. “Beef is very versatile, and so we have a product that can meet everybody’s income levels," Bray said. "Everything from ground beef to porterhouse.”

Summer 2012 wasn’t bad for Arizona agriculture, especially when compared to the devastating drought in states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The Cattlemen’s Association says nationwide, ranchers sold off 1.5 million head of cattle during the worst of the dry spell -- 1 million in Texas alone.

The U.S. Farm Service Agency has offered emergency loans to farmers and ranchers affected by the ongoing drought. But data going back to 2005 show the agency hasn’t made any loans to cover drought damage in Arizona.

“Those of us been in business a long time, you’re forced to be innovative," said Andy Groseta, who owns the W Dart Ranch in Cottonwood. "We’re resilient to the challenges. In agriculture, it’s a very difficult way to make a living. It’s a tough life. And the way we deal with [drought] is we reduce the numbers of livestock that we do run on our lands.”

Groseta said he and the ranchers he talks to didn’t have to sell off an unusually high number of cattle last year -- they saw plenty of rain. But if a big drought did hit in Arizona, it could affect every corner of the state.

Wayne Scott Wayne Scott, owner of the Papago Riding Stable, with his horses Rio and Dollars. (Photo by Nick Blumberg - KJZZ)

Groseta said anytime you’re traveling through wide open space, you’re probably looking at someone’s ranch. “Most people don’t realize that. They look at the scenery and how beautiful the landscape is, but it’s a rangeland, it’s dry land, and we depend on mother nature to provide feed for our cattle.”

Mother nature doesn’t just make trouble for cattle growers. Wayne Scott manages Papago Riding Stable on the north side of Tempe Town Lake, which his parents founded in 1967. The stable takes customers on trail rides through Papago Park and also boards horses.

They’ve got space for about 80 animals, each of whom can eat half a ton of feed a month. Scott said the price of a ton of hay is high right now -- around $300. To stay profitable, the stable has stopped outsourcing certain jobs.

“We do our own manure removal," Scott said, "whereas if you contract someone out, they’re going to cost you about $250 to pull a 40-yard dumpster of horse manure out. [We do] all the maintenance, anything like that where we can cut the costs."

Scott said high feed prices mean the stable might have to raise the monthly boarding rate later this year. But his business has actually been up thanks to another ongoing disaster the U.S. is dealing with.

“What we find with the economy, with the foreclosures of homes you start seeing people who might have been renting at their, maybe, family’s or a friend’s place and the house gets foreclosed that had horse property," Scott said. "So then we find them giving us a call and finding a place to board their horse.”

So, drought and all, business is pretty good for Scott and for Andy Groseta. He said ranchers in Arizona are hoping for another good year, even with the smallest herd of cattle nationwide since the 1950s.

“The cattle market, honestly, for the last two or three years, it’s been some of the highest prices I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime in the cattle business."

Arizona’s ranchers have decisions to make about how much of their herd to sell as winter gives way to spring, and as the dry months of May and June give way to monsoon rains.

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