Colorado is renowned for its mountains. There are 53 peaks in the state rising above the 14,000 feet mark. Quaking aspen trees, towering pines, mountain lakes, tumbling streams, and grassy meadows fill most people’s imagination when considering summer in the state. But in addition to being mountainous, Colorado is big and diverse. In its southeast corner are breathtaking canyons, on the Western slope, colorful mesas jut above the sagebrush.
The eastern plains, though, hold the least romance for the casual observer and receive only passing attention: usually from motorists on their way to the mountains.
But it’s the Colorado without mountains—among the ranchers making their living in the drainages of the Big Sandy Creek—where this story takes place.
This area’s land—using Lincoln County for statistical reference—is 99% agricultural. Of that, 72% is grazed and the average ranch size is 3,500 acres. Cattle and calves account for two-thirds of the income for the county’s farms. This is ranching country.
In the summer of 2015, the rolling hills of southern Lincoln County are a paradise of short-grass prairie. Even in July, the cool season grasses are still green and the warm season grasses are coming on strong.
Cash Chamberlain, who, with his wife, Candie, runs the J.O.D. Ranch near Wild Horse, is branding the last of the ranch’s calves on July 15. It rankles him—the calves should have been branded and moved to summer pastures two months ago. They’re big and feisty and the horses dragging them in and the flankers wrestling them to the ground are getting a workout. Rains kept him from getting the work done on his schedule. His crew chided him that every time he called the neighbors to schedule his brandings, it rained. But (despite the hassle) in the midst of it, they kept hoping he—as well as the rest of the community—would continue to get rained out.
According to the United States Drought Monitor, which measures drought severity in four degrees, D1-D4, beginning in September 2010 and running through May 2011, 100% of Lincoln County was experiencing some level of drought. The next year—from June 2011 through June 2012—about half of the county was experiencing drought.
In February 2012, the USDA designated Lincoln County, and nine other Colorado counties, as natural disaster areas. This gave qualifying farmers and ranchers the access to some government assistance and emergency loans to buy feed for their hungry animals.
The following 10 months, though, were the worst. From July 2012 through April 2013, 100% of Lincoln County was in a D3-D4 drought. The next two years didn’t improve much. Through July 2014, the whole county was experiencing some level of drought and then through April 2015, half the county was experiencing some level of drought. The governmental assistance programs did continue.
While the emergency relief assistance helped, it wasn’t enough. Ranchers were forced to reduce herd sizes—sometimes to completely liquidate—or ship cattle to areas of the country not suffering from drought.
The J.O.D. Ranch owners cut their cow herd by more than half. Chamberlain, who works on contract based on the number of cows he’s caring for, took a wage adjustment through the drought.
Kenny Yoder, whose grandparents founded the Yoder Ranch in nearby Karval in 1947, faced decisions daily that would affect the future of his family’s ranch.
“We cut numbers,” he says. “At my dad’s place, we’ve got some grow pens so we fed some. Then we went to searching for other places to send cattle. We had some yearlings at Pagosa Springs and cattle in Dalhart, Texas. We were just looking for something to make a living with.”
Yoder points out that despite it being a prolonged—and therefore worse—drought than either of the generations that preceded him on the ranch had experienced, the cattle prices stayed high. Because of that, ranchers who chose to liquidate herds weren’t decimated financially. But as the drought dragged on, alternative plans for making a living became scarce.
“Nothing worked,” Yoder says. “There were some people around who were pretty depressed about their situation during the drought. You couldn’t run enough cattle to make your land payment—even with good prices. Every year, you thought things would get better because maybe we’ve seen the worst of it.”
Justin Smith—who neighbors Yoder on the Long View Ranch—was hired on as manager in 2011.
“In the five years I’ve been there, I’ve only run cattle 1 ½ years,” he says. “The fences on that place were terrible so since I’ve been there I’ve put in 17 miles of fence. It’s pretty much all I did. Replace water tanks, and build corrals: just maintenance stuff. I was very fortunate that they just let me keep doing what I was doing to stay busy and didn’t lay me off or something.”
Levi Leonard grew up with Yoder in Karval and now manages the Brown Mill Ranch that borders the J.O.D.
“You’re short of cattle, but you’re short of water, too,” he says. “The creeks aren’t running and the ponds are dry. But the ranch isn’t any smaller, and you still have your gas bills and mechanic bills, but just half the cows to compensate for it. It’s not sweet and rosy like everybody thinks. Financially, it’s a little spooky when you’re having to deal with it.”
It’s been said that to break a drought of Biblical proportions, you need rains of Biblical proportions. By the end of May this past year, folks started thinking they should be building an ark.
In Colorado, intense and localized rains came in the fall of 2013—mostly in the mountains and South Platte drainages—resulting in severe flooding in the northern part of the state and millions of dollars in property damages and several lives lost. For eastern Colorado, though, the drought held on. While the winter of 2014-15 was mild and dry, come spring, rains began falling in historic amounts across the Western states. Minor flooding was happening again in Colorado, while in Texas the floods cost lives and property. All across the country’s Great Plains, the drought was being broken.
“It was just amazing,” Leonard says. “Everybody called, bragg[ing] on what they got.”
The mood in Lincoln County—and from Texas to Montana—was shifting.
“This has been the first year that everybody hasn’t been grouchy acting everywhere you go,” Smith says. “The amount of rain we’ve had this spring is unbelievable. I think in the month of May there were just three or four days that we didn’t get some kind of rain all month. It just went from one extreme to another.”
Oklahoma shattered its record for May rainfall, reporting 14.4 inches for the month, while the previous record was 10.75 set in 1941. Texas had the same story, an 8.8-inch average statewide when the previous record was 6.6 inches.
Closer to Lincoln County, the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport recorded its wettest May on record with 8.1 inches. In Pueblo, a total of 5.5 inches became the new record for the city. On average, 23 of the 31 days of May on Colorado’s Front Range and plains saw some sort of measurable precipitation.
As a result, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, by the end of May, 100% of Lincoln County was experiencing no drought conditions.
“We’re here by the grace of God,” Chamberlain says. “When you have an abundance like this, it takes the pressure off. You go to brandings when it’s wet and everybody is happy. It’s just so much easier for everybody to smile and have a good time.”
Most of the difficulties associated with the drought disappeared when the rains came. A few lingering affects continue to impact ranching: weeds were the first green things to sprout and grow in the wake of the rains, the tumbleweeds being the worst. They dislodge, tumble, and accumulate on fences and, with a strong wind, can actually push the fence to the ground and ruin it.
Financially, riding the drought out will also take time to recover from. Buying extra feed, shipping cattle, and paying for new leases—while producing fewer calves—put everyone behind and in most situations, capital improvements and expenditures are being postponed.
Largely, though, the longest-lasting affects of the drought are in the hearts and minds of the people who endured it. While the drought is officially over, these ranchers also know that the rains that came this spring will only benefit them for this year. If the moisture stops now, they’ll still ship heavy calves this fall. But next year? The year after that? Fewer folks are taking this rain for granted.
“I don’t know if it’s over,” Smith says. “But it’s in great shape now. As good as it gets.”
If the drought hardens the ground, it’s also hardened the men and women. Young ranchers might allow the spring rains to wash away the bitterness of the previous five years, but the ones with some experience in the business aren’t so short-sighted anymore. Chamberlain, Yoder, Smith, and Leonard have all ranched in Lincoln County for more than 20 years now and to a man they claim the drought changed them.
“You look at the bigger picture now, I guess,” Leonard says. “You base things off of 10 years, rather than thinking every year you’re going to get a certain amount of rain.”
Yoder, the third-generation rancher, turns a bit more philosophical.
“The main thing is, you need to plan,” he says. “Financially, you need to be planning ahead for something you don’t expect like that. You need to take care of your grass, and leave some back every year. When it turns dry for seven or eight years in a row, you’re going to run out of grass. But you just have to rely on the Lord for everything. That’s what it did to people around here. I’ve seen it in a few, and it’s neat to see. You just rely on God for everything during the good and the bad.”