Dry weather worries ranchers

May 19, 2002 11:00 pm
Crop lands in Baker Valley gradually are being cultivated for another growing season. Recent days with steady and gusty winds create dusty work as depicted in this photograph made north of Baker City at Ward Ranches. Unirrigated rangelands, however, have suffered from a lack of moisture in May, typically Baker County's wettest spring month. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Crop lands in Baker Valley gradually are being cultivated for another growing season. Recent days with steady and gusty winds create dusty work as depicted in this photograph made north of Baker City at Ward Ranches. Unirrigated rangelands, however, have suffered from a lack of moisture in May, typically Baker County's wettest spring month. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Darryl Hawes never has seen so much wind in May.

Nor so little rain.

That unseasonable combination — no measurable rain has fallen by May 17 at the Baker City Municipal Airport since April 17 — has left spring cattle pastures parched.

And that has left Hawes and a bunch of other ranchers wondering where their cattle will find grass.

"The feed just isn't growing," said Hawes, who has been ranching in the Burnt River Valley for 24 years. "It's got a lot of people in a bind."

Without plentiful grass, cattle don't gain much weight.

And without heavy cattle, ranchers don't make money.

The problem right now is not in irrigated pastures, which for the most part are getting plenty of water.

Unity Reservoir is full, and the North Fork of Burnt River, which greens hundreds of acres above the reservoir, is still flowing strong, said Jerry Franke, manager of the Burnt River Irrigation District.

But there are thousands of acres of cattle pasture throughout Baker County that never see a drop of water unless it falls from the sky.

And right now a cow could trudge through some of those pastures for hours without filling any of its stomachs.

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"Spring rains are crucial, and we just haven't had any," Franke said. "I just can't overemphasize the importance of these spring rains for pasture."

Hawes said the situation is especially frustrating because he and his fellow ranchers were optimistic just a few weeks ago.

This winter's snowpack didn't set any records, but it was far better than during last year's drought, when even dependable Unity Reservoir didn't fill.

"We thought we were going into a good year, but then the winds came and just dried everything out," Hawes said.

Cool temperatures have exacerbated the moisture-sapping winds, he said, stunting the growth of what little grass has managed to push through the dry soil.

Hawes said he's more fortunate than many ranchers because he has relatively few acres of unirrigated pasture.

But others have had to use irrigated hay fields as temporary pasture for the cattle, he said.

That will reduce their hay yields this summer, which creates other problems in the future.

If hay production is down, some ranchers might have to buy more hay to get their cattle through next winter.

And that hay likely will cost more per ton, because there will be less of it available on the market.

Nor are private pastures the only areas affected by spring drought.

The far-flung public rangelands, where most Baker County cattle summer, also are suffering, said Jay Carr of the Oregon State University Extension Service.

When May is moist, those rangelands can produce twice as much forage as average, Carr said.

But when this crucial month is as parched as this year's version has been so far, the summer range might generate only half as much feed as in an average year.

"It's starting to become worrisome," Carr said. "We're losing soil moisture pretty rapidly."

Annual grasses, which grow on some south-facing slopes, already are going to seed, Carr said.

Any rain that falls might come too late to rejuvenate those grasses.

But the perennial bunchgrasses, which are a much more important source of food for livestock, would benefit from late-arriving showers, Carr said.

"It's not too late for a rain to do us some good, but we're getting to a critical period," Hawes said.

Wettest month has run dry

In the past that period often has been wet.

May, on average, is the wettest month of the year at the Baker City Municipal Airport.

The "normal" rainfall total for the month is 1.41 inches.

But normal is a word with little relevance in meteorological matters.

In May 1998 a total of 4.2 inches of rain fell at the airport — a record for the month, and the second-most ever, in any month.

But each of the three Mays since then has been much drier than normal, the wettest of the three being 2000, when just .69 of an inch fell.

This May, though, is setting new standards for stinginess.

Through the first 16 days of the month, only a trace of rain fell at the airport. The National Weather Service doesn't consider a trace as a measurable amount of rain, so if the dry trend continues through the end of the month, the official figure for May 2002 would be zero.

That's never happened here.

It would not be the first record set this spring, though.

April was drier than normal, too, with no rain at all recorded at the airport after the 17th.

That means a month has passed without measurable rain, something that had not happened before during what typically is the dampest stretch of the year in Baker County.

There is still June to come, though, and thus there is hope.

June, statistically speaking, is the second-wettest month at the airport. Its average rainfall is 1.39 inches, just a short shower below May's average.

And as Hawes can attest, never has there been a year when more people have pined for June to live up to its soggy reputation.

"We're all praying for a warm rain," he said.

Measurable amounts of rain began to fall on Baker City Monday, May 20.