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As farmers and ranchers, we are acutely aware of the value of water. Two years ago, drought, coupled with wildfires, brought about hay shortage, herd reduction and difficult times for Wyoming ag producers. We are always looking for ways to get maximum use of water in dry years and wet years – our livelihood depends on it. 

After the state’s energy strategy was released in May 2013, we set to work next on developing a state water strategy. The process includes public involvement, like the process used to develop the energy strategy. We hope to complete the water strategy in 2014, and I want to thank the Wyoming ag community for participating in this important project.

As we all know, Wyoming agriculture has quite a history – here’s a lesser known bit of it.  Aldo Leopold, the author of A Sand County Almanac, is credited with being the father of modern environmental ethics. 

He wore many hats as scientist, teacher, hunter and farmer and famously said, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”  

He understood the land, as we do. We know where meals and energy originate, and we are rightly proud of our contribution to the nation’s food and energy needs. Perhaps not surprisingly, Aldo’s family found its way to Wyoming. 

Aldo’s son Luna had strong ties to the Pinedale area. He did a great deal of watershed and runoff related research in the Wind River Mountains. He had a cabin near Fremont Lake. Like his father, Luna was an influential scientist. He shaped the direction of hydrography and geomorphology. 

Luna, who was known to sit by the river near Pinedale in his tattered silver belly Stetson, once wrote, “Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime.” 

Luna passed away in 2006, but his legacy lives on in the best work of today’s top scientists and civil engineers.

We are glad Luna’s father provided such an example and inspiration for his son, and we are fortunate to have had a gifted scientist like Luna in our midst. Their words were true during their lifetimes; they are true during ours; and they’ll be true when our children share them with our grandchildren. 

Wyoming water merits the attention it gets. Our waterways have been explored, studied, written about, played in and photographed. It is easy to understand why our water gets so much interest. Wyoming is the headwaters of the nation. We see 17 million acre feet – 5.5 trillion gallons of water – flow out of our state every year. The water sources start high in our mountains and meander from there to shape America. 

We beneficially use about 3.3 million acre feet in our state and know the significance of the phrase “beneficial use.” It means using water to improve our lives and our businesses. It means growing our crops and raising our livestock – putting meals on the table. It means unlocking energy resources for fuel that turns on our lights. It means generating electricity, manufacturing commodities, washing laundry and otherwise adding quality to our daily living. It means work and recreation. We must protect this precious resource and maximize what it can do for Wyoming. 

The primary beneficial use of water in Wyoming is agriculture. Mining, thermoelectric and public supply are our next most important uses. Eighty-five percent of our water use comes from surface water. Nine compacts and/or decrees indicate how much surface water from our state is shared with our neighbors. 

Wyoming has no less than six agencies that are in some way involved in water and have nationally recognized expertise. Whether water rights, development, quality or habitat are involved, the professionals who work for the state of Wyoming represent the tops in their fields. One of the challenges we face is coordinating our subject matter experts to create something together bigger than any one area of expertise – a synergy that results in more than any single group or agency could do by itself.  Having a lot of expertise is actually a good dilemma – we can focus it in the water strategy. 

Like the energy strategy, Leading the Charge, the water strategy will be centered on strategic themes and then will identify actions that are ripe for implementation. The water strategy is not a study, but it does use the studies and work that have been done in the past by our agencies and citizens to define opportunities. Implementing initiatives in the areas of water development, water management, water conservation and protection and restoration will result in realized opportunities. The initiatives will have definite and measurable outcomes. 

We have not identified all the initiatives at this time, but within the next several months, we will be defining exactly what they are. They will be based on the feedback that you provided in the nine official listening sessions held throughout the state, the comments and emails you have sent us and the input we will get from you moving forward. Like the energy strategy, the water strategy will be designed for flexibility, so it can be modified and revised as needed and initiatives can be added, as well.

Please continue to weigh in. We know Wyoming has the best water law in the nation. We need to keep it. We know water is vitally important to our people and our major industries. We need to use it to keep them prospering. We know protecting our water, watersheds and way of life means having a plan that puts water to use yet also balances development and stewardship. 

In a world where water grows more precious every year, making the optimal use of Wyoming water will continue to be the most critical resource issue of “our lifetime and our children’s lifetime.”  A water strategy will serve Wyoming well.

What is the second biggest cost to keeping a cow?  Most of your neighbors don’t even know it exists!

Well, perhaps before we start discussing that, let’s talk about the biggest cost – feed cost, of course.  But this is probably only true if you consider the “opportunity cost” of your own pasture as feed cost. Let’s assume a cow grazes out nine months a year, worth $25 per month, and she is on hay worth $200 per ton for three months. This brings her feed cost to $495 per year, not counting any other supplemental protein or mineral.

So what is the second biggest cost?  Cow depreciation!  We are not talking cow depreciation for tax purposes but rather the “economic” cost of cow depreciation. Even though you don’t write a check for it – it is a real cost!

What is cow depreciation, and what can you do to manage it? 

I’m guessing your neighbor spends quite a bit of effort trying to manage their feed cost, but if they don’t even know cow depreciation is a cost then how can they spend any time at all managing this cost?

The truth is most producers don’t spend much effort at all managing cow deprecation.  It is my opinion that all producers would be well served to spend some management time focusing on this major cost to keeping cows.

Let’s think about how we would calculate annual deprecation on a pickup. If you thought about it a bit, you would probably tell me this formula:

(Purchase price – Salvage Value)/Years of Use

We can use this same formula to calculate annual cow deprecation. What is a young cow worth? What is a cull animal worth? How many years of service do we get from her?  

Let’s assume a young cow is worth $2,000, and a cull cow is worth $1,000 to make the math easy. The average cow in North America produces less than three calves in her lifetime.  You might make an argument that your cows stay in the herd longer, but I’m guessing if you actually took the time to figure it out, you would be surprised. We all remember the cow that stayed in the herd till she was 13, but what about all those that fell out after only one or two calves?  Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and say four.  Our formula would look like this:

$2,000 - $1,000/4 = $250 

If we used three years for the average years of service for a cow, then the math would look like this:

$2,000 - $1,000/3 = $333 

For most ranches, cow depreciation runs between $250 and $350 per cow per year, making it the second biggest cost to keeping cows next to feed cost.

Since cow deprecation isn’t a cash cost, we don’t think about it very much.  

How do most ranchers pay for cow depreciation?  They keep heifer calves and develop their own heifers.   

If we hold back a heifer calf worth $900, run her for another 1.5 years and get calves from 70 percent of them, then we have at least $1,500 in each developed heifer.  If we are replacing 14 percent of our herd a year, then we are right back around that same cost in annual cow depreciation shown above.  Either way, cow deprecation is a big deal.  

So how do we manage cow depreciation?

The answer lies in the formula.  There are three things we can do, and they relate to the three items in the formula. 

We can, one, reduce the purchase price of development costs, two, increase salvage value or, three, increase years of service.

Of these I would encourage you to focus on the first two items before you focus on the last. I believe most ranches reading this are already productive and the managerial leverage you have to affect item three is limited. Also, all the alternatives to affecting item three likely cost significant money.  

If you raise your own replacements, are there ways you can reduce development costs and still meet your needs?  Many ranches have found that treating heifers as stockers with a short breeding season results in well-adapted heifers, and they can market the opens for a profit.

Can you increase the value of your culls by strategically marketing these into a better seasonal market or add value through other creative ways?  For most cow/calf operations, a large portion of the gross income comes from cull cows.  Give them the attention they deserve in your marketing program.

Managing cow depreciation is one of the keys to being a profitable ranch.  Spend some managerial time figuring out what your ranch’s annual cow deprecation costs are and then get some people around the table and tackle the three strategies mentioned above to try and reduce cow depreciation and increase profit.

I hope moisture finds your grass this spring.

An enduring image of Wyoming is one of cowboys and cowgirls on the range. They are on horseback, taking care of the livestock and the land. A historic ranch building may be sitting nearby. In the distance, there are mountains, forests or splendid open spaces as far as the eye can see. The cowboys and cowgirls are dressed for the job, with cowboy hats, boots and rugged outdoor wear. 

On the range, the cowboy hat protects against the elements. In other settings, for example, at stock shows or around town, it shows what the wearer does for a living. Beyond that, though, ag producers feel at home in their hats and use them for nearly every occasion. Cowboy hats are a symbol of the West, to be sure, but they are much more than symbolic headgear. They are comfortable and practical for our work, which is often outdoors in all kinds of weather. They are like another appendage. Wearing a cowboy hat says louder than words, “I’m an ag producer and proud of it.”  

I have learned not to underestimate the value of a cowboy hat. This past summer I had the honor to travel to Asia looking for new trade opportunities for Wyoming companies and for the people of Wyoming. In Taiwan, I attended the Taipei International Travel Fair. This was an enormous event with well over 200,000 people passing through it. It was an event filled with potential for our state, and folks from the Wyoming Office of Tourism made the trip with me. The United States had recently signed a new policy allowing the 23 million Taiwanese citizens to visit our country without a visa. We would love to host lots of visitors from Taiwan in Wyoming, and we said so.   

While I was at the Taipei Fair, I donned one of my cowboy hats for the occasion and walked through the dense crowd. I stood out. Let me say up front, the cowboy hat made a big difference. It was a warm reception as people heard I was from Wyoming, a state most know. Reporters approached to ask about the Cowboy State, and I posed for many pictures and heard only glowing reviews of our state, people and reputation. 

Half a world away, our way of life, culture and heritage are recognized and revered. The cowboy and the cowgirl are icons. The chance to meet one in the flesh is unique, and a cowboy hat is an invaluable asset – it says something important about what we stand for, and people are drawn to it.  

Of course, the men and women who work in agriculture every day over many years have built the great reputation Wyoming agriculture enjoys. Wyoming has 11,000 farms and ranches, each with a special story and each preserving a way of life esteemed in the United States and across the globe. Wyoming ag producers supply food for the nation, add to the state’s economy as Wyoming’s third largest industry and preserve centuries-old history and traditions. 

And there’s more. They provide habitat for wildlife, places for hunting and fishing and vast open areas that improve the quality of life. The incomparable views, as well as the sight of working farms and ranches, are sought out by travelers from other states and from around the world. 

I couldn’t help but notice the interest in American ag products during the Asia trip. One stop was a supermarket. In the meat department, an entire section was devoted to American beef. In the most populated continent, I saw that there is intense demand for U.S. beef, which is sold at a premium. This bodes well for our future, and I am committed to highlighting Wyoming’s agricultural products whenever and wherever I travel. 

Success does not come by accident, nor does it come easy. Those of us in agriculture have had to overcome adversity and many challenges. We have a proven record of adaptation and of using our resources in a conservative manner. We are good stewards, and centennial farms and ranches are a testament to the staying power of Wyoming ag. We build on our successes, educate the next generation and run operations keeping the past, present and future in mind.   

In particular, I believe now is the time to focus on water. Water is the most vital resource in our state. Those of us in agriculture live with this reality every day, every season. So, I am asking that you help me create a Wyoming water strategy. Already hundreds of people from across the state have given us input about how to approach water development, management, conservation, protection and restoration. A water strategy is needed to safeguard our water for present and future generations. Thanks to all those who are engaged, and I have heard the call to push for more water storage projects of every size. Water storage projects can protect Wyoming water, and they will be a great legacy. 

Forests are another significant resource for those in agriculture. We have seen forests ravaged by beetles, and overall forest health has deteriorated. In response, I have asked a diverse group of individuals representing many backgrounds and interests to develop strategies to make sure our forests are sustainable and safe. This is another way to plan for the future. 

Exporting more products, healthier forests, new water storage projects – these are major undertakings, not easy endeavors. Encouraging and rewarding private land ownership is also critical for the future. But Wyoming ag is worth every effort. We always want to see that iconic image of cowboys and cowgirls, not just in our memories or the history books, but on the open range. 

A tip of my cowboy hat to Wyoming ag producers and all you do!

Grass pastures are essential components of western U.S. agriculture, especially on cattle ranches of the intermountain region. Unfortunately, the yield and quality of these grasslands are low, and continues to decline over time, which has been further accelerated by soil degradation. The yield of these pastures averages less than one ton per acre in many instances. 

Attempts have been made to increase forage yields of these pastures by fertilization and applying or controlling irrigation, but these efforts have resulted in little or no success. The price increase of fertilizer, energy and fuel has made improvement of these natural grasslands more difficult and, thus, threatens the profitability and sustainability of current production systems.

Introduction of a novel, drought tolerant and winter hardy tall fescue system in these grass pastures may have potential to increase productivity, profitability, quality and sustainability.

Tall fescue is one of the most productive cool-season grass species in the U.S. that can grow on a wide range of soils, has high drought and winter hardiness and can be used for pasture, hay, stockpiling, silage, soil conservation and turf grass. 

Due to the nature of prolific seed production, tall fescue will be a potential resource in producing seeds in the northwest Wyoming regions.

Recently, scientists in the Plant Sciences Department in the University of Wyoming initiated and completed a study to identify novel tall fescue cultivars and lines that would be suitable for growing in the western mountain regions, specifically in the Big Horn Basin area, and generate information on growth, forage yield and seed yield that would benefit not only local growers but also growers throughout the state and in neighboring states.

The study was conducted at the Powell Research and Extension Center in Powell and at a producer’s farm, the Stroh farm, also in Powell, under irrigated conditions from 2009 to 2012.  The study was repeated four times each year. 

The experiments included a forage yield trial with three doses of nitrogen – zero, 50 and 100 pounds nitrogen per acre, a seed yield trial with three doses of nitrogen – zero, 100 and 150 pounds nitrogen per acre, and three times of clipping – no, early and late. Standard seeding rates were used for both studies, with a rate of eight pounds pure live seed (PLS) per acre for seed production and 20 pounds PLS per acre for forage production. 

Forage yield, seed yield and forage quality were measured, and finally, an economic comparison was made. 

Tall fescue cultivars and lines used in this study responded very well to nitrogen treatments. The highest forage and seed yields were associated with the highest nitrogen treatment. 

Clipping treatments influenced seed yield, as well. The highest seed yields were associated with the highest nitrogen rate of 150 pounds nitrogen per acre and no clipping treatments. 

Nitrogen treatments did not affect the forage quality, and all cultivars and lines produced acceptable forage quality.

Economic comparisons indicated that at least 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre is needed to make the forage production profitable under irrigation. 

Seed production from tall fescue cultivars and lines were more profitable than forage production. 

The highest expected net returns were obtained from the no clipping treatments. Early clipping may be used in years when late freezing injury and/or limited forage availability are expected. Based on three years data and economic comparison, late clipping is not recommended.

The study generated useful data for the producers and growers in the region and beyond who look to use tall fescue as a potential forage and seed crop and to add revenue to their enterprises. 

Further studies warrant determining the maximum nitrogen rates for the maximum profits.

Anowar Islam is an assistant professor and University of Wyoming Extension Forage Agroecologist in the Department of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He can be reached at 307-766-4151 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..