Up to the Edge

Drought on the Chico Basin Ranch

December 6, 2013


Ranchlands' founder Duke Phillips is a third generation cattle rancher who believes in economic diversification, high conservation ethics, and public education as critical to the future of ranching.

A FIrst hand drought experience

First in a series of personal accounts on The Lessons Of Drought

As ranching families working and living on the land, we live and die by the amount of precipitation we receive. Balancing the needs of the land, animals and people is what has always defined ranching. It is the basis for our survival.

Since my family and I moved to central eastern Colorado in 1999, we have become accustomed to drought. We’ve been in what meteorologists call “a sustained dry cycle” since 2000.  In 2002, not a single measureable drop of rain fell on the Chico Basin Ranch. In the years since, we’ve had only one year where it rained within the average of 10-12 inches, resulting in much of the herd being shipped to the sale barn, leaving lease fees and bank notes still to be paid.

We keep ten rain gauges on the Chico Basin Ranch. After every rain event, the ranch crew splits up and someone checks each gauge. We leverage our herds accordingly. We graze pastures, and monitor the effects of that grazing in order to build a resilient, drought resistant plant resource. We have become accustomed to drought, but 2011 and 2012 scared us.

In 2011, the rain turned off.  We had enough grass left over to last us into 2012. In 2012, still no rain. I watched grass die, and areas of bare ground expand, offering no protection for topsoil or young seedlings. Then I watched topsoil lift off in boiling brown clouds. That topsoil will never return.

My dad used to tell me, “Sometimes you just have to kid yourself out of bed in the morning.” By the spring of 2013 I was beginning to understand what he was talking about. The wind blew relentlessly. I can remember so clearly it whistling and whining.  I would wake in the dark from sleepless nights and go out on the porch and wait for the sun to come up, dreading the coming day.

In the pre-dawn darkness, I dreaded the notion of cutting back: cattle, people, and all expenditures that did not directly produce revenue or operations maintenance.  I was not looking forward to feeling the all encompassing isolation that would follow. Benchmarks were coming up for selling the majority of the remaining herd. If no rain came I had staff and their families living on the ranch, depending on me for their livelihoods, dwindling with the shrinking cowherd. Was I going to have to let everyone go?  I asked myself. Who would be the first?

But a sustained drought is not the end of life as we know it, no matter how hard it gets.  Drought has always been one of nature’s cycles, and as ranchers, we have chosen to work in the natural world, which means we have to learn how to cope, how to be creative and proactive in our management methods.  Even in good times, we know that things will circle back around to the dry period, so we adapt and prepare before it comes.

As a consequence, over time, our normal management methods have incorporated fundamental contingencies and protocols that build in flexibility, careful planning, and conservative stocking rates.  We have adapted our grazing techniques to build root health, and enhance the ecosystem processes. That way, when the downturn comes, our ecosystem is healthy and robust, our plants’ roots vigorous, our soil regenerative.  Our monitoring methods provide the best information possible so we understand the results of our management, and are able to make good decisions.

But though our management methods are critical to remaining solvent and maintaining the ecological viability of our ranches, the key ingredient in managing through prolonged drought is the fact that this land is our home – to all of us living on the ranch.  With deep roots connecting us to nature, there is an innate sense of survival that comes from knowing down deep that no matter what, we will prevail.  As if the land is feeding us through our roots.  I think of it as a primal source of power that gives us strength, similar to impossible feats that we have all heard of humans accomplishing in emergency situations.

I included my staff in talking together when dryness deepened to drought in 2011, about the seriousness of our situation.  Everyone rose up to accept the challenge with me and we began to hold weekly meetings where we brainstormed and planned ways in which we could earn income and cut costs, to make up for selling the cattle. We gave attention to guest programs and training horses. We parked the trucks to the extent possible, and hitched up a pair of draft mares. In the meetings we came up with a grazing plan that put all the cows, calves, yearlings, and resting saddle horses in one herd. Frequent moves with one herd meant frequent fresh pasture and long rest for the vast majority of the ranch. Keeping all the animals together meant we would be focused on one part of the ranch at a time, all our eyes watching.

Our community, drought stressed, like a grass plant with deep roots, sustained robust and creative life underground and without rain.  We began to feel like travelers embarking on a journey, aware of looming hardship, yet excited for new places to see and things to learn. We became excited.  Words cannot express how empowering it was for my family to stand back to back with a group of people, all of us knowing together that we can emerge from a serious drought.

In May, it rained.  Not a bunch, but enough.  The grass grew and it got green and the cows and wildlife gave birth and raised babies and bred back.  We have enough left over to get us through the winter.  The drought has granted us a brief respite. But make no mistake the drought is still present.  It could get worse and when it does, we will still be here.

2 replies to “Up to the Edge

  1. Kate Howell

    Such a good read . Your fortitude is breathtaking

  2. Hans Bertschi

    When I was guest in May 2013 I was scared as well to see the patures mostly grey. Not being any kind of expert on ranching it needed not much imagination to understand the seriuosness of the situation. Nonetheless I met people in good mood and spirit. Keep going, because I ‘d like to visit the ranch again

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