RAWLINS, Wyo. — Around this time each year, snowpack and moisture levels are on the minds of area ranchers. This year, the topic is gnawing on those minds a little harder than usual.
"It's the biggest topic of discussion whenever any of us (ranchers) get together," said Jack Berger, a Saratoga-area rancher.
And 2002 comes up in those conversations like a black cloud that ironically doesn't bring rain.
The year set records for dryness, Saratoga-area rancher Les Barkhurst said, and 2012 is starting to look similar based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's snowpack telemetry reports.
"The last report I had of the water content in our SNOTELs was at the end of March of this year," Barkhurst said. "This upper valley watershed had less moisture than in May of 2002."
Berger compared the Old Battle site, which had 23.6 inches of snow water equivalents on Wednesday and 20.8 in 2002. The Divide Peak site had 6.7 inches last Wednesday and 11.6 inches in 2002.
"The way it looks now we're sure not going to get all our meadows wet, if you don't get some rain with the irrigation it's hard to make hay crop," Berger said.
Optimistically, a decent crop coupled with carryover hay from last year will get ranchers through the year, Berger said. If things don't go so well, ranchers will have to move cows or buy hay — which can be expensive.
"We may have to sell some cows, cut back some to kind of fit the hay pile this coming winter or see if we can afford to have the hay be hauled in," he said. "You've got to weigh your options there, whether it's better to sell cows or buy hay."
Cows can graze on corn stalks in Colorado or Nebraska, but getting them there is expensive, he said.
"As we near the end of April with minimal precipitation, the prospects for forage production on rangelands is increasingly bleak," said Michael A. Smith of the University of Wyoming's Range Extension via email. "People need to dust off their drought plan."
Hay from this region was shipped to Oklahoma and Texas to cover their drought season last year, Berger said, and suppliers aren't expected to have excess hay this year.
Water availability is a concern in the Little Snake River Valley, but ranchers have an advantage with the High Savery Dam, said Tom Grieve, a rancher in Colorado near Baggs.
"With the High Savery Dam, this valley is a lot better off than a lot of them," Grieve said.
The dam has about 14,000 acre-feet of water, well below its 22,000 acre-feet capacity.
"It's not going to get full, very definitely we're going to have a low-water year," Grieve said.
Meanwhile, back in the Platte Valley, ranchers are waiting and planning.
"It taxes our brains," Barkhurst said. "It makes us think, be innovative, be conservative."
And while he calls the drought-like conditions a great challenge, he is confident everything will be all right.
"It always works out, Mother Nature always takes care of us in the valley very well," he said.
Information from: Rawlins (Wyo.) Daily Times, http://www.rawlinstimes.com