Low livestock numbers coupled with excellent range conditions have set the table for a strong market year for Wyoming ranchers.
Copious amounts of rain received in nearly every drainage basin in Wyoming has created favorable range conditions and livestock are packing on the pounds. Cattle and sheep producers say it's a banner year for grass production on Cowboy State rangelands.
U.S. beef cow numbers are near their lowest point in the last 50 years, which has created a strong market.
Dennis Sun, publisher of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, told Cowboy State Daily that prices for 550-pound calves could go as high as $3.40 per pound this fall.
Mike Curuchet, a Johnson County rancher and president of the Wyoming Woolgrowers Association, said he contracted early lambs for 65 cents more per pound this year than last year.
In recent years, the U.S. cattle inventory has decreased due to the rising costs of farm inputs like fertilizer, fuel, labor and machinery. In response, ranchers have sent heifers to market rather than holding them back as herd replacements.
With lambs, Curuchet said the market worked through an oversupply problem over the past year and prices have increased as a result.
Rain Makes Grass Grow
Wyoming's major drainage basins received generous rainfall through the spring months, and rain in early August has kept grass green for longer than normal.
According to Sno-Tel data compiled by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Sweetwater Drainage, about smack dab in the middle of Wyoming, received 137% of normal precipitation for the water year Aug. 9.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Cheyenne area received 93% of normal precipitation by the same date. The rest of the drainages in the state are above normal.
"For most of Wyoming, range conditions are the best in recent memory," said Sun. "Everybody is pretty happy, even though there was some death loss last winter due to the heavy snow. Prices for calves are close to record levels, so it will make up for part of those losses."
Sun said there are two kinds of drought, the kind that happens when there's no rain for long periods, and hydrologic drought when there isn't enough snow to replenish reservoirs, lakes, streams and rivers. This year Wyoming has avoided both.
William Bunce, Wyoming state director for the Farm Service Agency, told Cowboy State Daily that in the last two years, there were numerous applications turned in for disaster assistance because of drought.
Bunce said he doesn't expect that scenario to repeat this year.
Happy Cows, Happy Cowboys
Sun said during some wet years, the grass retains water and doesn't have time to cure. Ranchers call this scenario "washy." The cattle have a hard time adjusting and their back ends look like they've been dipped in guacamole.
Wyoming is known for producing high-protein grasses, and this year the steady rains have kept it green much later than normal.
"This year we are seeing the best of both worlds," he said. "It's cured and it's still green out there."
He added that good grass equals good milk production for cows, and he expects heavier-than-normal calves will come to market this fall.
"It's not starting yet, but we will see if ranchers start to hold back heifer calves this year," he said. "It takes two years for a heifer to produce a calf, so it looks like high prices will be around for a while."
Curuchet has ranched in Johnson County his whole life and this is one of the best years he's ever seen for range conditions.
"The grass has stayed green longer than normal this year," he said. "I was just up there yesterday, and the lambs look awfully good."
Lamb Market Correction
The lamb market has been unstable in recent years but has bounced back from an oversupply situation and has strengthened. Auction prices from a sale in Bowman, North Dakota, on Aug. 7 shows 90- to 99-pound lambs fetching $181 to $196 each. Some 792 head were sold in that auction.
In comparison, prices from a sale at the same auction in November 2022 were $30 to $50 less per head.
"The feedlots have cleaned up the oversupply and they are looking for lambs now," he said. "What we are really looking for is a lamb market that we can live with. People are tired of the roller coaster."
Curuchet added that the sheep industry needs a strong, stable market to keep up with the steep increase in production costs.
John Thompson can be reached at: John@CowboyStateDaily.com