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Droughts hits Arizona ranchers with disaster

Droughts hits Arizona ranchers with disaster

American Farm Bureau Federation Market Intel logo

This is Part Two in a Market Intel series showcasing the impacts of drought conditions in the Western United States. Part one presented the first set of results from American Farm Bureau Federation’s Assessing Western Drought survey, published in the July 15 issue of Agri-View. This iteration highlights a guest-author submission from the Arizona Farm Bureau, illustrating state-specific hardships faced by farm and ranch families in the region.

Even for a desert state the past three years have been dry in Arizona. As of June 11, 14 of Arizona’s 15 counties were in D4 or exceptional-drought designation. The same drought that rages across the entire American West is threatening the livelihoods of Arizona’s farmers and ranchers, no matter the commodity they grow. The impacts have been devastating to the state’s $23.3 billion agricultural industry, in ways that may change the face of farming and ranching in Arizona for generations to come.

Arizona’s primary land use is livestock grazing. The state is home to more than 6,000 cattle ranches that cover 73 percent of the state’s total land area. Ask any of the ranchers who manage those 6,000 ranches and they will say they spent the first half of 2021 hauling water. Without any rain, ranchers are hauling 100 percent of the water that they can’t get from pumps or pipelines. The water costs 1 to10 cents per gallon – not including the cost of labor, equipment and maintenance necessary to deliver it where it needs to go.

No rain also means no forage. As a result ranchers have reported as much as 94 percent increases in hay purchases as compared to this time the previous year. But the impacts of reduced forage supply are not exclusive to dry years. Many ranchers pride themselves on pasture-rotation systems and forage-management plans. But dry years make it impossible to sustain an economically feasible carrying capacity while also leaving some pastures in reserve.

To survive most ranchers have sold significant portions of their herds. But because every ranch in the state is in the same boat – one with no water under it – the market is not favorable to ranchers looking to liquidate. One rancher reported the price for cow-calf pairs has decreased by about 60 percent in the past 18 to 24 months.

While hauling water and supplementing with protein can help bridge the gap until there’s water and forage available, at the end of the day there’s simply no way to make it rain. Instead ranchers must look elsewhere for resources to help them survive these dry times. Ranchers welcome the tools available to them through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many have found programs including Pasture, Rangeland and Forage Insurance, the Emergency Assistance for Livestock Program and the Noninsured Crop Assistance Program to be extremely helpful. Despite the availability of that relief, every rancher surveyed concerning drought issues indicated they plan to sell 50 percent to 100 percent of their herds unless drought conditions significantly improve.

Tina Thompson

'We believe in banking grass for the bad years,' says Arizona rancher Tina Thompson. 'We like to leave a reserve of grass every year. We keep our herd numbers lower to be able to do this. But now we're down to the last blade of grass.'

Regionally crop production is also facing severe challenges due to drought. There’s no better example than Pinal County, located in the heart of central Arizona. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Pinal County is home to 232,224 irrigated acres. In a study conducted by the University of Arizona, Pinal County was found to account for 42 percent of the state’s cotton and cottonseed sales, 39 percent of milk sales and 22 percent of hay sales that support milk production. Overall agriculture contributes $2.3 billion in economic impact to the county. And it’s not just on a local level that Pinal County agriculture is important. Pinal County is in the best 2 percent nationwide in terms of total value of agricultural sales.

That bounty was made possible by water coming from two major sources – groundwater pumped through wells, and the Colorado River that’s delivered through a 336-mile canal known as the Central Arizona Project. Water used by states in the lower Colorado River basin is subject to a complex priority system. Pinal County farmers, who rely on Central Arizona Project deliveries for about half of the water they use, have the lowest priority access to Colorado River water. That means shortages on the river impact them first. Currently it’s all but certain that the Bureau of Reclamation will declare a Tier One shortage on the Colorado River in mid-August.

When that happens, Pinal County agriculture will lose access to 300,000 acre-feet of water, with no readily available replacement in sight. The next alternative is increasing the level of groundwater pumping to match that lost surface water. But it will take at least $50 million to rehabilitate existing or install new well infrastructure to make that a possibility. Although efforts have been made to mitigate the impact of the shortage with surface water – agreements from priority users to forego some of their Colorado River allotments, for example – there’s simply not enough water available from any source, surface or ground, to match the loss of water and production capacity that is now inevitable in Pinal County. The University of Arizona estimates the economic impact of losing that water will include a loss of more than $100 million in sales, $66 million in gross farm-gate sales and as many as 480 full- or part-time jobs.

On a more positive note, Arizona is working hard to define what the next frontier of agriculture will look like in the state. Knowing that drought is one of the biggest threats to their livelihood, farmers and ranchers across the state have invested millions of dollars during the past few decades to ensure no drop of water is wasted. Ranchers have invested countless dollars in water-conservation infrastructure like tanks and pipelines. They’ve worked for generations to develop precise and science-based forage-management practices. Farmers have laser-leveled fields, installed computerized drip-irrigation systems and contracted with third parties to grow alternative reduced-water crops.

July 2021 was a month of record-breaking monsoon rainfall in Arizona, and for that our farmers and ranchers are grateful. But one month of moisture does not a megadrought fix. Arizona’s agricultural community remains committed to using every drop as effectively and efficiently as we can while also working with elected officials at every level of government to craft relief programs providing a life raft – so when there is water, agriculture will still exist to use it. Right now only one thing is certain. Without a significant improvement in hydrological conditions, that future cannot and will not look like the thriving agricultural economy of today.

Drought Monitor update

According to the Aug. 5 release of the National Drought Mitigation Center’s U.S. Drought Monitor, more than 80 percent of the western United States plus North and South Dakota are categorized as D2 -- severe drought – or worse. That’s an increase from 68.5 percent the week of June 17 and a big jump from the 29 percent of the West designated as D2 during the first week of August a year ago. Qualifying at or worse than the D2 level are 95 percent of the land area in California, 99 percent of Montana, 98 percent of North Dakota, 95 percent of Nevada and 100 percent of Utah.

Chelsea McGuire is the director of government relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau, writing for the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Market Intel. Visit for more information.

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