Ranchers Weather Downside of Drought Rebound in Arid Utah

Sep 27, 2019  | 6 min  | Ep4506

Widespread weekend rains ended much of the flash drought across the Midwest last week, but didn’t relieve conditions in the Southeast.

During mid-March, a low pressure system spread from the Southwest to the Great Lakes bringing blizzard conditions, hurricane force winds, heavy rains and flooding.

While those in the Midwest were left to helplessly watch water roll over their levees, the rain was initially welcomed in other parts of the country.

Josh Buettner reports in our Cover Story. Producer contact: josh@iptv.org

When the now-infamous bomb cyclone ripped through the Midwest in early 2019, the massive storm blazed a trail for historic spring flooding – leading many Corn Belt farmers to plant crops late – or not at all.

But in arid climates, like the Four Corners region of Utah, the weather phenomenon brought a reprieve from business as usual.  Although for some, the saturation kicked off a roller coaster ride.

Shawn Ivins/Blanding, Utah: “We had a really heavy winter and a good spring.  And so we came onto our range, this past spring, and it was great.  The green that was growing up through here in April and May was better than we had ever seen it.  But a few months before that, all this summer grass – this warm season grass – there was nothing.  This is all new growth.”

Shawn Ivins and his brother Tyler run 300 head of cattle in San Juan County.  Their allotment stretches from the peaks of the Abajo Mountains – locally known as the Blue Mountains - down to the desert terrain of Butler Wash.  But due to ongoing drought, the brothers sold off a third of their herd in 2018. 

USDA precipitation data shows the area averaged less than 3 inches between January and May during over 15 years prior. In 2019, during the same span, over 5 inches fell in the region – 181 percent above normal.

Shawn Ivins/Blanding, Utah: “All that moisture through the winter, both down on the desert and up on the mountain spurred a lot of growth of plants.”

Ivins says the minerals and proteins cows get foraging brush cuts down on the cost of having to feed their herd supplements.  But this year’s flourish allowed some seeds, dormant in the soil for years or even decades, to spread like wildfire.  Chief among them was Larkspur - a tall flower from the buttercup family.  While appetizing to grazers, the plant packs a toxic bovine gut-punch.

Tyler Ivins/Blanding, Utah: “A lot of the ranchers were moving the cows into areas not even expecting to see the poison there or even knew that it was possible that it would grow there.  The seeds, you know…We’d never seen them in our lifetime…Without even knowing we put cows into an area…”

The ranchers say they knew something was wrong when 10 percent of the cattle they drove up through a pasture on their allotment died over a mile long stretch.  One local rancher sent samples of the plant to USDA’s Poisonous Plant Lab in Logan, confirming the community’s suspicions.

Shawn Ivins/Blanding, Utah: “We’re familiar with larkspur and we’ve seen it.  We’ve dealt with it, you know, up higher on the mountain and so we knew what it was, but we were very surprised to see it come up down on the winter range.”

Tyler Ivins/Blanding, Utah: “The flowers were not even blooming out yet, so we didn’t even know it was really there and we didn’t know it could grow down there and then all of a sudden it bloomed out and it bloomed out everywhere.  It wasn’t just in our area it was all over.  And so it wasn’t like you could move them from one place to another because it was everywhere.”

By working with the U.S. Forest Service, which administers their summer range grazing permit, the Ivins’ were able to get a handle on things by rotating cattle into other grazing areas later than usual – giving the larkspur a chance to dry out and lose toxicity.  The process typically takes a week or two.  But this year the Ivins spent six weeks safeguarding their investments – roughly $2,500 annually for each cow-calf pair.

For cattle displaying characteristic symptoms of bloating, foaming at the mouth, and loss of motor functions, death is all but certain – though some do avoid consuming fatal doses and may slowly recover.

Reagan Wytsalucy/Utah State University Extension – Monticello, Utah: “It has an alkaloid in it and so inevitably it starts to prevent the neurotransmitters from functioning and eventually the cattle will start to have respiratory problems. And eventually it leads to death just from the respiratory system collapsing.  And so they basically end up suffocating.”

Reagan Wytsalucy is an assistant professor with Utah State Extension in nearby Monticello.  She says social media posts revealed local enthusiasm for the bloom of color rarely seen in the area before the public was educated about the downside of the Larkspur. 

Reagan Wytsalucy/Utah State University Extension – Monticello, Utah: “This year we just had a lot of snowpack.  Even into July we still had some snow up there.  It’s kind of a win and lose battle with the weather here right now.”

Wytsalucy adds the weather anomaly, which filled parched reservoirs, eventually gave way to drought. The lack of moisture lead local dryland farmers like John Johnson, who also encountered larkspur with his herd, to wait out Mother Nature or risk losing precious topsoil.

John Johnson/Monticello, Utah: “We can’t plant wheat.  It’s too dry to plant.  It’s all part of farming in this country.  Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, so… But that’s the way we live with it right here in this area.”

As for larkspur, agricultural authorities have found letting sheep graze ahead of cattle tramples plants, making them less appetizing. Unlike their larger ruminant cousins, sheep also metabolize the alkaloid faster and have fewer gastrointestinal problems. 

But for the Ivins brothers, who say larkspur can still be found on cooler and wetter north-facing slopes in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, 2019 was a lesson learned the hard way.

Tyler Ivins/Blanding, Utah: “There’s really no cure for it.  You just gotta have to hope they didn’t get the lethal dose and if they did, then it’s within hours that they die.  I mean it’s pretty quick…Definitely we’ll be watching for it in years to come.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.

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