Snows in southeastern Colo. burying ranchers' livelihoods

GRANADA, COLO. — GRANADA, COLO. -- The snow curled up before the massive plow blade fitted to the front of one of John Duvall's tractors.

The 58-year-old rancher clenched his jaw as the vehicle trembled and then stalled. There were still a hundred yards of snowed-in road he had to clear before he could haul hay to the starving herd of cattle clustered in a small clearing.


"This is [what] you put up with every day," Duvall said. "You're working your butt off, and looking at your livelihood go down the drain."

The snow Duvall spends 10 hours a day clearing began to fall before Christmas, and has continued since. Howling winds blow it back across previously plowed roads and highways, regularly choking off travel in this isolated stretch of the high Plains. Coupled with unseasonably low temperatures, the snow has created a slow-motion disaster in an area that was already reeling from drought and depopulation.


More than 8,000 head of cattle have died. Those that have survived are losing weight, their pastures buried under 2 feet of snow. Calves are being stillborn or dying within hours. Equipment is wearing down, and local governments are burning through their budgets just trying to keep roads open.

"It's almost like this is the straw that could break the camel's back," said Chad Hart, a representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture here. "It's affected the city, county and ranchers."

There has been little federal help. The area was declared a disaster last month, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse local governments for only 48 hours worth of expenses - and many are racking up costs every day. "Probably more than half our [weather-related] expenses are going to be incurred from today on," Eugene Millbrand, a Prowers County commissioner, said this week.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter is asking the USDA to free up low-interest loans for ranchers. But state Agriculture Commissioner John Stulp, who owns a ranch in Prowers County, said that's expected to be a tough sell because so many other regions - including California's citrus belt - also are seeking disaster aid after an arctic storm swept across the country this month.

Stulp said he fears the worst could be to come. "This has been so enormous, it's beyond what a typical winter would be," he said. "And we're only one month into it, with two more to go."

Southeastern Colorado is used to hard times. Prowers County, which includes the hamlet of Granada, has lost 4 percent of its population since 2000, as young people flee for urban areas. A lingering drought has cut into crop yields and led many ranchers to slim down their cattle herds. Last year, a bus manufacturer left the biggest town in the area, Lamar, taking 400 precious jobs with it.

This is historically the warmest part of the state, with an annual precipitation of 15 inches. That climate makes it a prime place to raise cattle, which can graze throughout the year or stay in the numerous feedlots, untroubled by extreme weather.

This winter has been different. As much as 48 inches of snow has fallen since the first storm hit Dec. 22. Winds up to 60 mph created 16-foot-high snowdrifts, and temperatures have stayed below freezing almost all month. "We pretty much developed an actual glacier out there," said Bill Fortune, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service station in Pueblo, Colo.


Though the vast majority of the snow fell during the last week of December, people here say every day feels like a new blizzard. Jim Rogers, his wife and their two children left their ranch outside the town of Eads on Sunday to go to church and run errands - normally a 20-minute drive. It took them six hours to get back home - something they could do only because a neighbor lent the Rogerses his tractor to plow the road to their ranch, which was covered by blowing snow.

Rogers hasn't lost any cattle, but he worries that he'll run out of feed soon. Like most ranchers, he was counting on the cows sustaining themselves by grazing on grass. The feed shortage has gotten so severe that the Colorado Cattlemen's Association has started an online "hay contact list" to connect ranchers with potential suppliers.

Duvall thinks he'll get through the winter, but it'll take what he had believed was a two years' reserve of hay. He has lost about 50 of the few thousand head of cattle he keeps on his sprawling ranch, 14 miles south of Granada. Every cluster of cows he passed on a recent tractor ride around his property contained a couple of corpses. There was nothing to do but leave them on the icy ground.

What was once a landscape of rolling hills and ridges is uniformly white and flat. The rural county roads are lined with 10-foot-high walls of plowed snow.

Duvall guesses he'll lose a half to three-quarters of the money he makes from selling calves to pay for the snow damage. He and others might recoup some of that from improved crop yields when the snow melts, but the disaster would still eat into his savings.

"I don't know of very many people," Duvall said, "who ain't going to have to borrow some money."


Nicholas Riccardi writes for the Los Angeles Times.