SHERIDAN — The wildfires in the West caused thousands of acres of destruction and could have a lasting impact not just on farmers and ranchers but on the beef and cattle market.
Christy Lohof with Lohof Grass-Finished Beef said she lost between 1,000 and 1,500 acres of grazing land on the Custer National Forest near their ranch, based out of Powder River County, Montana, due to wildfires this year.
The Lohofs also lost acres of private land.
The destruction decreased the amount of pasture available for the Lohofs’ livestock to graze. While Lohof said it won’t immediately affect them when they come to market, there is a chance the destruction will cause prices to fluctuate.
“When your pastures are burnt up, you can’t graze your cattle on it,” Lohof said. “So you have to find other grazing somewhere else or you have to start buying hay earlier.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking steps, though, to help farmers and ranchers in the West deal with not just wildfire damage, but also other natural disasters.
On Sept. 11, the USDA designated Campbell and Crook counties in Wyoming as primary natural disaster areas due to damages caused by drought.
Farmers and ranchers in contiguous counties like, Converse, Johnson, Sheridan and Weston counties in Wyoming, Carter and Powder River counties in Montana and Butte and Lawrence counties in South Dakota also qualify for natural disaster assistance.
The counties are eligible for Farm Service Agency emergency loans and have eight months from the date of declaration to apply. Loans will help cover part of actual losses.
While these counties are eligible, USDA state program specialist Cindy Hottel said the emergency loan program may not be the best choice. Emergency loans have a fixed 3.2 percent interest rate, which may be higher than loan programs already in place.
Additionally, Hottel said the FSA County Committee has requested emergency conservation program funding for replacement of fences, totaling approximately $800,000.
“There was a lot of miles of fence that were destroyed that are boundary and cross fences for livestock grazing distribution,” Hottel said. “So that’s really important in the ranching community, to have proper rotations, and the fencing is a big part of that.”
The final amount that will be available to ranchers can be higher or lower depending on how many have experienced loss, which will be determined after the sign-up period ends.
The application for the emergency conservation funding hasn’t yet been approved. The application must go through an approval process in Washington, D.C., before-sign up can begin, and Hottel said there will be local advertising for the program once it’s approved.
The USDA also has crop insurance under the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, or NAP, as well as a Livestock Indemnity Program, or LIP, where eligible producers can be reimbursed for death losses on livestock that perished during the fires.
Hottel said there normally isn’t huge herd losses particularly because ranchers keep track of where their livestock are and can move them before the fire gets too close.
“The problems we have is when (the fire) flashes up and the cattle is there and there’s no time to move,” Hottel said. “And that has happened in some of our fires last year and even earlier this year, so that’s kind of an ongoing thing.”
Montana has had more death loss of livestock due to the state’s widespread fires than Wyoming, Hottel said. And while the numbers aren’t in, Hottel said she expects that some claims on livestock could affect the market, not just because of supply but also because of size.
“Even if they don’t perish, their rate of gain may not be as good, you know, so coming into the market with lighter calves in the fall can have some impact on pricing for producers,” Hottel said. “Not so much on availability or supply and demand, but pricing. But less cattle drives the price up, but lower weights bring the prices down.”
The impact the fires have had on the Lohof farm aren’t unique.
Hottel said the biggest loss agriculturally they’ve seen is with feed loss, and low availability could potentially drive prices up.
Lohof said the ranch didn’t take as hard a hit as others this season, and their saving grace was the wet spring. She said overall, though, ranchers are used to losses caused by Mother Nature.
“We weren’t as affected as some people,” Lohof said. “The grazing we lost was OK this year because we still had enough pasture to get us through our summer forest lease, because we had such a good wet spring, so it was a shame to lose all that grass but we’re doing alright.”