If you live in a wet climate, you probably wish for less rain and humidity. If you live in a dry area, you long for the occasional rain. No one is ever completely happy with the climate where they live, although rain generally does not affect a person’s livelihood, only their comfort level. However, if you make a living in the west raising cows or dry land farming, rain is your life blood; rainfall determines success or failure.
Perhaps you are wondering why raising cows requires rain. They are not planted in the ground, right? The answer is simple: rain makes food for the cows. During the summer, ranchers send cows out to summer pasture, which is not cultivated. Cows eat the native grasses which are nourished by rain. No rain means sub par summer pasture.
During the winter, ranchers bring cows in near the barns and calving sheds, where the ladies gather, stay warm, and give birth. During these months, the cows eat hay. A typical rancher grows at least some of the hay, and again, low rainfall means low yields, even in irrigated hay meadows. With a low yield of hay, ranchers must haul it in from elsewhere, which significantly affects their profit margin.
It should be more obvious how rain affects a dry land farmer. Wheat, for example, is dry farmed here in southeast Wyoming. Farmers plant the crop, which is in the grass family, in early fall. The plants go dormant in the winter, like the grass in a lawn. The plants burst forth again in the spring and the mature wheat is harvested in July. Dry land farms are not irrigated, so crops yields are affected by winter snowfall and spring/summer rains.
Last year we lived through a drought. Summer pastures were barren and hay yields were low. Wheat production was off. The mountains and high plains were so dry that fires broke out, some causing significant property loss. Strained ranchers lived in fear of a lightning strike, which could spark a fire, which could take out all their arid, timbered land and more than a few cows in one roaring woosh. In addition to their regular duties, ranchers went up to their ridge tops at night, looking signs and smells of fires.
The significance of losing cows to drought and/or fire can only be understood if you know how beef gets to your plate. A rancher keeps their cows for up to seven years, during which time their job is to produce calves. The rancher sells off the calves, who can weigh in at over 1000 pounds, the following fall for processing into beef; hence, calves can be called the cash crop. In the meantime, the cows are bred again over the summer and will produce another calf in the late winter or spring. If drought forces a rancher to sell off the cows, there is no more breeding stock, hence no more calves, hence no more income.
And even if a rancher could buy cows and rebuild through breeding, it takes up to a full decade to nurture a nice, content herd. Not all cows are equal. Some are docile and easy to be around. Others are belligerent, even mean. Nice cows have nice calves. Mean cows have mean calves –generally speaking. So, as a way of selecting for a more docile personality, a rancher keeps the nice ladies and disposes of the mean ones. A rancher friend of mine told me he sells the means cows and the old, spent bulls for bologna.
Rancher and farmer fears during a drought are not unfounded. Agriculture is a boom or bust business. Parents and grandparents tell stories about how Mother Nature is unpredictable and impulsive, how she is consistent only in her tendency to bring havoc to the agricultural cycle.
So, you can understand why we are relieved to have rain this year. A cool, wet spring, like this year, brings hope for a good year. Expectations heighten when the June thunderstorms roll in bringing drenching rains. When the weaker, late July storms arrive on schedule, we are downright ecstatic. There is no sound more hopeful than a night rain falling softly.
Still, in the rain lies a great irony. Rain can produce a great crop for man or beast but the associated hail can take it out within minutes. Furthermore, harvesting wheat during wet days can cause many problems. And in the fall, wet fields can keep sugar beet farmers and their equipment out of the field. Too much delay due to excess rain and the beets could freeze right in the ground. Rain is both our lifeblood and our nemesis and the timing matters.
Like Goldilocks discovered, sometimes life’s offerings are either too little or too big, or in our case either a little rain or too much rain. Things are just right only sometimes and then, only until next year.