CARR, Colo. — The cost of putting food on the table is the highest it's been in 40 years, and ground beef is one of the foods seeing the highest price increases. Beef costs 12% more now since this time last year. You might think that would mean big profits for ranchers, but ranchers are struggling to keep their own businesses running.
We spent a morning driving through the Colorado plains with cattle rancher Rick Wahlert to find out how rising prices are impacting those raising cattle. Ranching the land has been in his blood for generations, but the land may be the reason Wahlert loses what he loves most.
“We were talking about getting rid of part of our cows this summer because of high feed costs. No place to keep them,” said Wahlert, who cares for several herds in his community and is part of the Natural fort Grazing Association.
The drought is drying up the grass for cattle to feed on across the United States in places like Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Texas and Missouri. It's hurting the biggest beef production regions in the country.
“I know a person that just sold down to, out of 100, he kept 20 head because they would not have enough feed this winter to feed them all, and so they went ahead and made the decision to sell them all,” said Wahlert.
Ranchers being forced to sell off their herds means higher prices for consumers and less money for the families working the land.
“Others have to go get another job somewhere, or else 'Sorry, you don't get a paycheck this year. Hopefully, you saved enough money from the years before that you can get through,’” said Wahlert of how many ranching families are feeling. “It's kind of tough that way. It's not what we can control.”
Also out of control: feed and fertilizer prices.
“COVID started some of it, but it's supply and demand,” said Wahlert.
Stephen Koontz, a professor of agricultural economics at Colorado State University, said the supply chain problems and the severe drought happening today are not only hiking prices now, he expects prices to keep rising for a long time.
“The cattle numbers themselves were down, what, two and a half percent, so what that tells me is we're in for some very expensive beef prices, really probably three years down the road, two years down the road,” said Koontz. “I think it's not just going to be beef. It's going to be protein across the board.”
“You lay awake at night thinking about things. It is a struggle every day,” said Wahlert.
Wahlert is working with members of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association to develop solutions and paths forward for ranchers and their families to thrive.
Koontz said ranchers can invest more in insurance to protect themselves and their herds, but that won’t help in all cases. Yet, when it comes to the drought, there's not much anyone can do but wait and hope the land will once again give their livelihoods a place to prosper.