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Water shutoffs effects felt on area’s farms and ranches; cattle, hay come at steep premium;
Illemorini sealed the headgate earlier this month when he received a yellow slip from the Oregon Water Resources Department. The notice told him the Klamath Project had made a call for water based on its 1905 state sanctioned water right, and River Springs will have to curtail water use until the Project’s needs are met. Some of the 8,000-acre ranch parcels have water rights dating to the early 1900s, some as early as 1864. The 400-acre parcel Illemorini received the notice for has a 1953 water right and will go without water until the call is lifted.“The only thing I’m allowed to do is keep water coming for the cows to drink,” he said.
In 2013, the first year water adjudication was implemented, blanket water shutoffs across the upper Basin caused several ranch owners — Illemorini included — to move cattle to other locations or to sell. As River Springs Ranch manager, Illemorini has had to rethink the ranch’s business model, and he has made several cutbacks to keep from going under.“We had to lay off one man. It’s still going to downgrade our income and we’ll just have to put off repairs on equipment that we might send into Klamath to get fixed. You kind of put Band-Aids on some stuff, instead of having surgery done on it,” he said.
Economic trickle downBetween 1991, when Illemorini joined River Springs, and 2013, the ranch’s Black Angus herd swelled from 150 to 1,100. River Springs’ 3,000 irrigated acres are enough to supply feed for those cows plus some, but after last year’s shutoffs and future water uncertainty, Illemorini was forced to sell 250 cows, reducing the herd to 850.
The adjudication shutoffs are governed by the “first in time, first in right” principle, which assigns water priority based on property claims. The older the property claim date, the more senior the water right. Landowners with junior claims, such as Illemorini’s 1953 right, can be shutoff if a senior water right holder makes a claim to that water.Illemorini said with preparation, water curtailments are manageable, but it’s not just farms and ranches that suffer. The effects of tightened purse strings trickle into the community, he noted, pointing out that money River Springs spends in Klamath Falls is directly related to production: When income slows, spending slows. “You can only spend so much without going plumb out of business,” he said.
Hay losses possibleAccording to Ron Johnson, co-owner of Pelican Tractor, Basin farmers and ranchers have been hesitant to move forward with their farm plans this year. He said 2014 started out sluggish, but picked up steam in February and March. Once the Bureau of Reclamation announced in April the limited 239,000 acre-feet irrigation water available this season, sales slumped again.
Johnson said although hay and cattle are doing well on the market, water uncertainty has led many farmers and ranchers to have a “wait and see” attitude. He said any way you look at it, the Basin’s ag industry and related businesses are going to take losses this year.“If they don’t have water, they’re not going to participate in the market,” he said. “And if they are losing hay crops, they are losing a lot of money.”
According to the June 13 Oregon Weekly Hay Report, premium alfalfa is selling for up to $255 per ton. Mylen Bohle, a forage, cereals and alfalfa specialist at the Oregon State University extension in Crook County, said prices are similar to last year, but may increase because of the drought.“On a regional basis, hay prices could go up because there are fewer acres being produced,” said Tim Deboodt, a Crook County leader for the OSU Extension Service.
According to Ron Rowan, beef prices are at “unprecedented levels.” He said Klamath County cow and calf producers who have feed for their animals are in for a “very good couple of years.”Calves are selling for more than $2 per pound — greater than the all-time high — and culled cows are fetching 80 cents to $1 per pound; Black Angus breeders might pull in $2,000, Rowan said.
Curbing cattleRiver Springs Ranch’s water was first cutoff June 20. In September, Illemorini made the decision to separate his cows and calves to cut down on hay and feed costs.
Shortly after, looking at the possibility of another drought and adjudication year, he sold nearly one quarter of his herd.“You have to make that business decision in November, and you base it on that you’ll have somewhat of a normal year. This water year is way below average. I probably should have just had 500 cows,” he said.
Other ranchers have reduced their herds more drastically. Sonner Crume, manager of the Bar S Ranch in Sprague River, has two wells at his ranch, but has lost access to valuable rental pasture in Bly because of the lack of water. He has reduced his herd of 150 by half.Crume said he might have enough water to get by until his first cutting of hay, but if the water to his field is shutoff, it’s likely his remaining 75 cows will have to go. “It’s a day-to-day deal right now,” he said. “We’re just trying to hang on, but if we have to sell the cows, we have to sell the cows.” Illemorini said ranchers are up against an impossible task. “You have to keep adjusting, and the hardest part of it is to adjust for dry years,” he said.
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This water marker measures the amount of irrigation water flowing from Fivemile Creek into pastures at River Springs Ranch in Bly. Water shutoffs have caused the level to drop well below the ranch’s 2.3-foot maximum limit.
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Page Updated: Friday June 20, 2014 03:57 AM Pacific
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