A herder pushes cattle through a squall along the Green River Drift route on June 17, 2020. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Sub-zero temperatures, heavy snows and savage winds have taken a toll on Wyoming’s farmers and ranchers this winter, prompting Gov. Mark Gordon to prepare a request for federal assistance.

Gordon on Monday urged ranchers to prepare for a brutal winter storm this week and said he’s working with state and federal officials to request a federal disaster designation to make more federal relief funds available for Wyoming ag producers.

“The winter started exceptionally early and has resulted in significant snow levels and considerable drifting,” a press release from the governor’s office stated. “Ongoing windy conditions and drifting snow is hampering efforts to reach livestock. [Livestock] mortality has been high thus far and is expected to increase well into the spring as a result of this harsh winter.”

Areas in red depict a blizzard warning while areas in pink depict a winter storm warning Feb. 22, 2023. (screenshot, National Weather Service)

In a paradox of weather extremes, years of drought and warmer-than-usual temperatures have also resulted in federal relief aid to Wyoming. In fact, the application windows for some of that heat and drought-related assistance only recently closed

The economic toll from battling cold, wind and snow this winter is thus far unknown, federal Farm Service Agency Wyoming Executive Director Bill Bunce said. State and federal ag officials in Wyoming are working to estimate a dollar value and are tracking livestock mortality as they prepare a request for a disaster designation.

“At this point, we just don’t know,” Bunce said. “Other than to know that, without a shadow of a doubt, there has certainly been a [disaster] event.”

A federal disaster declaration, though not certain, is warranted, Wyoming Department of Agriculture Public Information Officer Derek Grant said.

Snow covered Casper Mountain Dec. 14, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“We do know that this year, many producers in Wyoming have had to feed cattle hay earlier and more often and have experienced [livestock] mortality rates not common with the season due to the inclement weather,” Grant told WyoFile.

Harsh winter

Wind gusts topping 78 miles per hour west of Laramie and 83 mph south of Casper Tuesday morning ushered in a severe winter storm this week. The storm is expected to drive temperatures to -20 degrees Fahrenheit across much of the state and dump more than a foot of snow in the lowlands and several feet in the mountains. 

The high-elevation snow, one rancher told WyoFile, will help fill reservoirs and provide good stream flows this summer — a bit of relief after years of drought and low winter snowpack. But in the lowlands, the combination of extreme wind, cold and steady snow this winter has wreaked havoc on livestock producers.

This winter “has been…as tough as people have seen in 20 years.”

Dennis Sun, Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Incessant plowing is one major expense, Carbon County rancher Ty Espy said. While some ag operations are fortunate enough to have their own plowing equipment, many do not. Some county road crews are stretched to their limits, he said. Meantime, the snow has packed cattle guards in some places, rendering the barriers ineffective and creating a headache of stray cattle.

“We have to babysit the cows until about 6 at night,” because of snowed-over cattle guards, Espy said Tuesday. “Last year, we had a pretty tough spring and summer here [with lower-than-normal runoff]. It’s a tough winter, but we’re getting by.”

Even in the midst of prolonged drought conditions, cold and snow on the other side of seasonal extremes brings more immediate challenges than relief, according to ranchers and ag industry officials.

A series of snow and partial melting events have crusted over large swaths of winter grazing lands. Cattle, other livestock and wildlife struggle to break through the crust for forage, as Crook County cattle rancher Thayne Gray described to WyoFile in 2021.

A map depicting Wyoming’s February 2023 “snow water equivalent” — an indication of snowpack — shows higher than average snowpack. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

“I thought it was an anomaly, but it seems to be becoming more consistent with how our winters are coming along,” Gray said then.

Highway closures have seemed more prevalent this year, Natrona County rancher and Wyoming Livestock Roundup publisher Dennis Sun said. Road closures and poor travel conditions slow deliveries of extra hay — which is selling for $250 to $275 per ton this season compared to about $160 pre-2021. Yet many livestock producers have little choice but to pay premium prices for hay and for fuel to plow roads.

“You get out in the country and the wind just hasn’t stopped,” Sun said. “As soon as you open up a road [private or otherwise], the night wind blows it back in.”

This winter has been “probably as tough as people have seen in 20 years,” Sun said. “It started in early November and just kept up.”

The extra expense to maintain a Wyoming livestock operation through a difficult winter adds up, Bunce said, and not necessarily in ways that funnel local ag dollars to local communities. “It truly can be devastating,” he said.

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. “Whenever an individual cedes responsibility, they cede liberty,” Ken Pendergraft (R-Sheridan)

    wonder if Ken will be voting the same way on this bill.

  2. Once again, the fiercely independent, anti-government cowboys expect a govt. bailout when the going gets tough. Suck it up cowboys, taxpayers don’t owe you any thing. Let go of your subsidies for your cows and like most of get a real job.

  3. If we remain committed to stay the course and continue to invest heavily in coal extraction and bovine flatulence things are bound to warm up around here exponentially…..eventually…..

  4. Those of you who are cheering for the demise of family farms and ranches due to this weather event in Wyoming should stop and think for a moment what and who will take our place. You continue to assume that ag operations in this state are widely subsidized and at the same time cry for green energy development that can’t even be trucked into the state without subsidy. The governor is also a Sierra Club board member and globalist banker whose motives may or may not be in the interest of the stock people. We have had to take aid that was put before us, our bankers couldn’t let us not take it. All the solid Wyoming industries including AG have been regulated to the point that we have no choice. You same people complain about the antics of landowners like the corner crossing guy at Elk Mountain but don’t realize that when you get production agriculture out you will get globalist elites in our place who will play here and you will serve.

    1. It’s ironic that those who cheer for entitlement reform from the gullible ol’ party, have their hands out at the same time.

      The fear mongering over the global elites ruining wyoming is laughable. Perhaps if the welfare ranchers were forced into an income viable career, the leased land they control would have a chance of making money for the state.

    2. I’d dearly love to agree with your implied sentiment that the cattle ranches are the buffer zone between abundant wild spaces and expedited exurban development . That is a noble notion , but far too many ranchers are hostile to anyone sharing their spread. It really irks me when a grazing leasor treats the public land like defacto private property after the taxpaying public shares the burden of managing the land without getting the benefit paid for. Truth be told , If every cow in Wyoming were abducted by alien spacecraft tonight , the rest of the nation and the red meat market would hardly miss them after a month or so. Especially those few cows that actually spend some part of the year on public land. Sorry to have to say it but you are neither overregulated nor taxed overtly. I would love to have the same degree of subsidies accorded to agriculture also offered to my business sector, in fairness. It would be helpful if Wyoming ag producers actually produced something we could all ingest. No amount of ranch dressing makes a plate of hay edible to my tongue and palate.

    1. I was thinking the very same thing Bruce. All the whining about federal overreach pipes down when we want disaster relief. We’re by know means alone….see also Texas….but the irony is just too rich. Even if Gordon (nor the Gov Abbott’s of the world) choose not to see it.

  5. Once you realize that prolonged drought, blizzards, bitter galeforce winds, and extreme cold are existential to Wyoming for more than half of most years , you begin to grasp the greater part of the problem. The only way herds of imported cattle breeds can be raised for money here is if half that money comes from external subsidies. Trying to raise temperate zone bovines above 4000 feet elevation in a semi-arid sagebrush steppe with precious few riparian zones and a short frost-free growing season is by definition a lousy business model. Cheap water, nearly free grass , and dirt cheap rent on public lands do not help to balance the books much … the true costs of cattle ranching in Wyoming are never fully factored in . Not honestly .

    Which is why Governor Gordon – who in civilian life was a Stockgrower before he was a Governor – requesting federal Disaster Relief in advance of any perceived disaster on the hoof … that merely confirms the Grand Hypocrisy of the eternal faux-economics of the Wyoming stockgrower heritage. If you take away the subsidies and tax breaks , and convert the Wyoming cattle industry to pay-as-you-go production driven by prevailing markets and capital finance , herds of beef cows in Wyoming would get real scant real fast. Cattle don’t really pencil out by themselves.

    The greater disaster surrounding the Wyoming livestock business is its eternal dependence on what could best be described as chronic socialism. We all pay to prop up the cowboy culture , all the time.

    For all its spaciousness , Wyoming is ranked 15th on the list of cattle producing states. The Cowboy State competes in the sale rings with Florida and Alabama.

  6. Bye, bye cow farmers and sheep farmers. Your disappearance will be noticed by very few around the country. The meat peddlers won’t even know you’re gone. Trouble is, the feds are so dumb, they will give you what you want and sing praises as they bow low before guvner dufus.

    1. Wow, Harvey. I don’t think you understand the scope of what agriculture produces. Far more than meat.