Ranchers Continue to Fight Winter’s Wrath on Southeastern Plains

February 12, 2007

The snow has stopped falling for now, but ranchers on Colorado’s Southeastern plains continue to struggle against a brutal season that is killing cattle and may take years to overcome.

A one-two punch of blizzards more than a month ago buried the plains in four feet of snow, with drifts topping 10 feet. The snows scattered thousands of cows across tens of thousands of acres, covering the grasslands where cattle feed and burying water sources.

As they struggle to regroup, ranchers who make up the $500 million cattle industry in Southeastern Colorado have had to deal with unrelenting cold that stresses the already weak cattle. At least 10,000 cows died in the blizzard or shortly after. Now, in the aftermath, cows continue to die of respiratory disease, starvation, dehydration and other ailments. Stressed cows may abort their calves, and the youngest and weakest of the herds won’t live to see spring’s warmer temperatures.

Rancher Bill Wilkinson, 47, is just one of the cattlemen trying to make it through. Instead of the quiet winter he expected, he finds himself spending up to $600 a day for hay and watching his cattle die.

“If you save one, that’s a victory,” he said. “If you lose one, that’s a loss.”

Working the land his father bought in 1951 in Las Animas County, about 200 miles southeast of Denver, Wilkinson said saving the ranch and his 400 head of cattle has become a family affair. His wife, Nancy, has taken time off her job as director of adult education at Trinidad State Junior College, and their 18-year-old daughter, Sydney, is home, taking a winter off before attending college.

“I couldn’t have done it without them,” he said.

Mack Louden, who owns Marty Feeds in Trinidad, said ranchers will end up spending up to $30,000 on feed this year, money they might have spent elsewhere. Everything goes into saving the ranch.

Wilkinson said he expects to add more debt. The National Guard’s haylift after the storms was nice, he said, but didn’t put a dent in the feed he’ll have to buy this year. And a federal loan program might help some, but most ranchers already have bankers, and the federal program is merely a safety net.

“There isn’t anyone who is upbeat right now,” Louden said. “It’s been a long, hard struggle this winter.”

Nancy Wilkinson turns to her faith for comfort. She’s read her Bible, including the Book of Job, who suffered, but endured.

“We are Christians and pretty strong in our beliefs,” she said. “I wish I could breeze through all this without saying, ‘God, have you forgotten about us down here?’ I do believe things happen for a reason, so, if God sent this, He will show us a way.”

The Old Farmer’s Almanac many turn to for weather guidance predicts another blast of cold and snow later this month.

Spring seems a long way off.

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