By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
WINSLOW, Ariz. (DTN) -- Yes, Winslow has a corner where every Eagles fan and Route 66 enthusiast has to stand and have his or her picture taken with a mural of a girl in a flatbed Ford painted on the side of a building. "Take it Easy" is usually blaring from the gift shop across the street. In the middle of the road, a giant Route 66 highway sign is painted.
While Winslow has its corner, Williams offers its western style mixed with highway cruising nostalgia. Seligman has Delgadillo's Snow Cap -- a worthy burger stop -- while Kingman is home to the International Route 66 Festival. Getting to the old mining town of Oatman, Arizona, requires following narrow, hairpin turns leading Oatman's unique group of feral donkeys that hang out downtown and take up all the parking spaces.
Arizona along Route 66/Interstate 40 also has wide swings in temperatures because of 3,000-foot changes in elevation that tops 7,300 feet around Flagstaff.
The lack of reliable water and high temperatures in the desert limit agriculture in northern Arizona largely to livestock ranches. Yet, much of the state and parts of Nevada have been hit hard by rains in recent days, sparked by Hurricane Norbert making landfall in Mexico. Southern Arizona saw three inches of rain in eight hours, causing significant flooding as Arizona's soil aren't capable of absorbing such heavy rainfalls. It has been a summer of heavy rainfall with Winslow recording 2.7 inches in August. Farther west, Flagstaff recorded more than five inches of rain in August and Williams, Ariz., came in just under that.
Rancher Jim O'Haco lives in Winslow and also owns a tire store in town less than a 10-minute drive away from the town's famous corner. O'Haco serves as first-vice president of the Arizona Cattlemen's Association, and ranches in both the high desert and mountain ranges.
O'Haco's family has ranched in the area since 1910 when his grandfather first came out to Arizona and ran sheep. At one time, the ranch was the largest sheep ranch in Arizona before O'Haco's dad converted the ranch over to cattle in the 1940s.
On at least some ranches, producers are shifting to smaller grazing animals. Arizona lost about 1,700 cattle operations from 2007 to 2012, according to the 2012 Ag Census. The cattle herd also fell by about 89,000 head. Yet, the number of sheep and lambs statewide grew by about 26,700 animals during that five-year span counted by the Ag Census.
O'Haco has about 700 mother cows on about 100,000 acres, or an average of one cow about every 140 acres. "It takes a lot of acres to raise a cow," he said.
About 90 miles farther west, Mike Macauley owns Perrin Ranch, one of the state's largest sheep ranches north of Williams, Ariz. He owns 32,000 acres and leases 32,000 from the state. This summer he has about 4,000 sheep and 200 cow-calf pairs. In a "normal" precipitation year, the ranch could run as many as 6,000 sheep and 400 cow-calf pairs. The cattle are on the ranch year-round while the sheep graze about five months out of the year.
Macauley's ranch saw some reprieve from the drought this summer as some heavy rainfalls hit the area. "This place looks good. You wouldn't have thought it was the same place 30 days ago. It's greened up a lot," Macauley said in early August.
Though Macauley has sheep and cattle, he is able stock at a higher rate than O'Haco and generally operates at about 80 acres per animal.
Macauley's ranch also has 63 wind turbines on the land he leases; they were built on the ranch by a state utility company three years ago. The windmill companies pay rental fees to Macauley and the state. The companies are also trying to refurbish the roads they built to get to the windmills. The infrequent rains created gullies where roads and pads were carved out for the wind turbines.
CHANGING CLIMATE FOR RANCHERS
Macauley said the area north of Williams has been in a drought for 15 years. In talking about climate change, he noted that humans have had an effect on the planet, but to what degree is unclear. In his own area west of Flagstaff, Macauley said the winters and springs are drier while the late summers are wetter.
"I don't think it has gotten any drier. I think the seasons have changed," Macauley said.
O'Haco also doesn't have any empirical evidence that the climate has changed, but he is certain there was more rainfall around Winslow when he was younger, and the land was able to sustain more cattle than now. He estimates stocking rates now are about 30% lower than historical rates.
"When I was a young man, I remember the stocking rate and on the same amount of land we raised more cattle than we do now," he said. "It seemed like it rained more then."
Parts of Arizona have seen heavy showers this year throughout July and August, so much so that it caused flash flooding in lowland areas as rainfall ran off mountains and plateaus in the desert. Heavy thunderstorms are again hitting Arizona early this week and leading to flash flooding.
O'Haco said rains are sporadic and conditions can swing from year to year. "It's tough to stay in the cattle business. Last year, I was very fortunate, the Lord gave me some rains, but the year before was bad."
Ranching in Arizona comes down to managing lean grazing lands and keeping some water nearby. Macauley's ranch has no surface water or groundwater wells. He relies on stocking water in impoundments and tanks that capture snowpack and rain runoff. Water rights in the area are first in time, first in right. Even adding a stock tank requires approval of downstream users. If any of them objected, then it would make it difficult to get approval, Macauley said.
"It's all about what the impact is on the resource and what the resource can support. If it looks like it's overgrazed, move them. If there isn't any water there, you move to where the water is."
Arizona's on-again, off-again drought conditions are taking a long-term toll on communities. Less snowpack usually means towns face depleted reservoirs -- if they have any -- as well as dwindling groundwater. Williams, Ariz., with a population of about 3,000, now has wells extending 3,500 to 4,000 feet deep trying to satisfy the town's water needs. Outdoor uses of water such as washing cars or watering the yard are banned.
GRASS VS. TREES FOR WATER ON RANCHES
The mainstay for the Arizona ranches is Blue Grama grass, which can have protein levels at about 13% when green, falling to about 6% when dry, which is comparable to later cuts of alfalfa during the year.
"When it's green, it's a phenomenal grass," Macauley said. "It's greening up real well right now."
Ranchers spend more time battling trees than perhaps anything else. Juniper trees, in particular, are the bane of ranchers because they shelter the land from the sun, preventing grass from growing in the process.
"They are in direct competition with the grasses for sunlight and water," Macauley said.
Enough Junipers will block grass from growing in whole swaths of land.
"In some places where you have a heavy concentration of them, you don't have any grass at all," O'Haco said. "We have removed them from thousands of acres over the last few years."
O'Haco has received conservation awards for his work removing Junipers. In some areas he has increased his grasses by 50%, he said.
"We have done thousands of acres in the last 10 years," O'Haco said. "It has sure made a difference in our grasslands."
MEXICAN WOLF DEBATE
Ranchers are also fighting another challenge. Arizona and New Mexico ranchers are locked in a debate with federal officials over endangered Mexican gray wolves. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service keeps proposing to introduce more gray wolves back into the wild. Local officials, ranchers and sportsmen oppose the plan.
"I don't know why they think they need them," O'Haco said. "The wolf was gotten rid of years ago for a purpose. Anyway, it's going to be a battle. I can see it coming.
The Arizona Cattlemen's Association spent $100,000 to prepare comments about the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, but O'Haco said the group's concerns were largely ignored as USFWS moved ahead with its new proposal. O'Haco said he expects the battle with USFWS will end up in litigation. If the federal government goes ahead with the wolf repopulation, it would hurt the value of ranch land in the state, O'Haco said.
"They turn them loose and they will kill your cattle," he said. "Then it will devalue your ranch because nobody wants to buy it. Nobody wants it if it is going to kill your source of income."
Several groups have asked federal officials to extend the public comment period on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife plan. The comment period is set to close later this month.
CATTLE MARKET CREATES OPPORTUNITIES
Despite these wildlife and water challenges, and feeder and fed cattle prices coming down from historic highs when DTN visited O'Haco in early August, he still was enthusiastic about the good fortunes for ranchers.
"These are probably the highest prices we've had in my life," he said. "I never thought I would see prices like these."
Macauley sees a good outlook continuing for the cattle cycle. "We have increased demand, reduced supply and our exports keep going up," he said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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