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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.