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Weber County dairy farmer: It is scary out there

WEST WEBER, Weber County — As temperatures continue to climb in the drought of 2012, so do feed prices for livestock.

Ron Gibson, who runs a 1,500-head dairy operation on the western edge of Weber County, said he has practically given up trying to predict how much this summer will hurt when it finally comes to an end or how much the farm can continue to hemorrhage from its wounds.

"Our feed costs are doubling," he said. "I have never in my life seen anything like this. It is scary."

Gibson has sympathy for those corn and soybean producers in the Midwest who have had to weather the drought and seen staggering losses. But he says those losses in many cases are covered by crop insurance — and that money doesn't do a thing to edge the bite of higher feed costs in the animal-based agricultural industry, which is dependent on corn and soybean crops.

While the cost of production has doubled or even tripled in some cases because of the wilting and devastating summer, milk prices have been relatively stable.

"We just have to hope that those prices will come up a bit," Gibson said. "In the end, the consumer is going to have to pay more for their food."

All 29 counties in the state have been designated as drought-impacted by the federal government. Twelve counties have qualified for additional disaster relief.

Arthur Douglas, executive director of the Utah Farm Service Agency, said those designations include Washington County in the south and stretch to Box Elder County in the north.

The range of reasons is as varied as the counties' geographical traits. Millard County, for example, suffered from one of the worst cricket and grasshopper infestations in more than a decade.

A hard freeze did damage in Piute County, and 15,000 turkeys in a Sanpete County farming operation were lost to a fire, Douglas said.

Douglas heads up the agency, under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which intended to be a conduit of assistance for Utah's agricultural producers.

He said the summer's extreme conditions have prompted a variety of responses from the federal government, including reductions in interest rates on emergency loans to farmers and ranchers, as well as opening up grazing at reduced rates on certain lands set aside for wildlife habitat.

Qualifying farmers and ranchers can also receive reimbursement for their costs associated with hauling water to parched herds of cattle or other livestock, Douglas said. Financial assistance can be awarded to help cover the costs of replacing fencing that may have been lost to wildfires.

The offices — 19 of them statewide — attempt to work with farmers and ranchers to help them jostle for the assistance that may be available.

Douglas comes from a tradition of farming and ranching in Box Elder County that stretches back nearly a century, so he is a firsthand witness to the cruelty of this summer's conditions.

"It is about as bad as I have seen," he said. "And my dad is 83, and he says the same thing. It's real unusual."

During the work week, Douglas lives in Salt Lake City and then travels north to home for the weekends. That, he said, is when he sees the stark differences in how the drought is impacting the urban Wasatch Front compared with rural Utah.

"City folk, if you will, don't understand the severity of the drought if all they do is drive up and down the asphalt," Douglas said.

With the wildlife, Douglas said he sees the drought driving change in behavioral patterns he hasn't witnessed before.

Out in Box Elder County's remote Grouse Creek, state wildlife officers documented 300 head of elk on a 50-acre patch of alfalfa, he said, adding that the field will be decimated after a couple of days if the elk fail to move on.

Douglas has had reports of coyotes out hunting in the daytime, as well as antelope drinking side by side with cattle trying to get the last remnants of a shrinking watering hole on the front range of Colorado.

"So, yes, it's ugly out there," he said.


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