Wyoming’s Rangelands vs. the Midwest’s Croplands

Wide expanses of native grass and shrub lands stretch out across Wyoming, making the vivid blue sky seem larger than it may actually be.  Livestock producers use cattle and wooly sheep to harvest the grass and generate food and fiber for the rest of the country and world.  Wildlife can be seen grazing or browsing on these expanses.  Grasslands are an integral part of the Wyoming way of life and landscape, and 85% of Wyoming is considered to be what we call rangeland.  Have you ever wondered about why?

Cattle harvest native grasses on rangelands across America (Photo: NRCS).

Cattle harvest native grasses on rangelands across America (Photo: NRCS).

 

Before Europeans settled this great country we now call the United States of America, grasslands covered much of the country, not just the western states, like Wyoming.  As settlers started moving west, large swaths of land in the East and Midwest were tilled to create spaces for crops such as corn, beans, wheat, oats, and other fruits and vegetables.  These areas of the country are conducive to crop farming due to their relatively flat nature and adequate precipitation received.  Before farming the Midwest was once tallgrass prairie, but it is estimated than less than 1/10 of that remains.  Tilling the land can be a very exciting experience.  The earthy smell reminds one of the great things that are to come.  The dark, fertile soil radiates heat that as been trapped under ground all winter and birds flock to the site, gobbling up worms and seeds that have been exposed.

A young man tills the soil (Photo: Ashley Garrelts).

A young man tills the soil (Photo: Ashley Garrelts).

 

As settlers moved west into Wyoming, tillage and crop farming no longer could be accomplished due to more rugged terrain and a drier climate.  Today, while there is still some crop farming only about 9% of the total area of Wyoming is in traditional cropland like we see in the Midwest.  Agriculture in this great State typically is made up of domesticated livestock grazing on the high plains of the Eastern half of the state and in the mountain ranges and foothills of the Western half of the State.

The rugged mountains and foot hills of Wyoming (Photo: Wusel007; CC 3.0).

The rugged mountains and foot hills of Wyoming (Photo: Wusel007; CC 3.0).

 

What makes Wyoming’s climate not conducive to crop farming and more conducive to grazing livestock?  The answer in that lies in the topography and relatively high elevation found across the State.  The Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming and the state is essentially a great plateau broken up by many mountain ranges.  Surface elevations range anywhere from 13,800 ft to 3,125 feet above sea level.  The climate is classified as semi-arid and continental, making it drier and windier than other parts of the country.  Temperature extremes are common, especially between the highs of the day times and lows of the night times.  The wide variety of temperatures that can be found in a 24 hour period do not allow for efficient crop growth, but grasses that evolved in this area can thrive with little or no input from man.

High plains and rugged mountains collide in the Western United States (Photo: NRCS).

High plains and rugged mountains collide in the Western United States (Photo: NRCS).

 

Wyoming is dry, which is another reason crop farming can not occur without supplemental irrigation.  Much of Wyoming receives less than 10 inches of precipitation annually.  Areas that are known for their cropland, like the Midwest region generally receives more than 25 inches per year.  Again, the native grasses that have evolved under these conditions provide excellent forage for domesticated livestock and wildlife and that is why Agriculture in Wyoming is mainly large cattle and sheep ranches.  These ranches harvest the native forage and then we harvest the animals for food and fiber.

Average annual precipitation across the United States (Graphic: Public Domain)

Average annual precipitation across the United States (Graphic: Public Domain)

 

Tilling the earth can be a rewarding experience, filled with promise and hope of a new crop.  However in most of Wyoming and many other areas of the West this is not possible due to climate and semi-arid conditions.  Ranchers and farmers in these areas take pleasure in watching animals grow and tending to the area’s native rangelands.

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A Day in the Life of a Cattle Farmer

In honor of National Ag Week I would like to tell readers about a day in the life of a cattle farmer.  This last weekend I visited the farm on which I grew up.  Typically this blog focuses on rangelands and ranching but cattle farming is just another way to say ranching.  Is there really a difference between ranching and farming?  Some would say, “no, not really,” and others would say, “sure there is.”  Just a clarification for confused readers:

According to Merriam Webster, ranch is noun meaning: “a large farm especially in the U.S. where animals (such as cattle, horses, and sheep) are raised”; and farm is a noun meaning: “a piece of land used for growing crops or raising animals.”   When I use the word ranching I typically speak of raising animals on large parcels of land and when I use the word farming I am typically speaking about raising crops and animals on smaller parcels of land.  Personally I do not have a preference of which term is used.  I have always thought of my family as farmers and it is likely because I grew up in Eastern Wyoming near the Nebraska border where crop farming is more prevalent.  Those people who grew up where big cattle or sheep operations are common typically think of themselves as ranchers rather than cattle or sheep farmers.  Either way you look at it, whether it is ranching or farming these agriculturalists are raising the food and fiber that feed and clothe this great nation.

Cows graze on dormant grasses underneath a blue sky (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

Cows graze on dormant grasses underneath a blue sky (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

 

As I was saying, this last weekend I took some time to go visit my parents and help out on the family farm.  Friday was cold and windy, but the sun was shining brightly as my dad and I built fence.  Luckily we have post pounder that is hooked to the power take off of a tractor.  This allows the wooden posts to be pounded into the ground. Thus we do not have to dig holes by hand or with a post-hole digger.  This saves time and energy.  After all the posts are pounded into the soil, four strands of barbed wire will be attached to each post using a metal fastener we call steeples.  The strands will be placed so the they keep cattle in but still allow wildlife to pass under or over.  This new fence will keep our cattle from roaming onto the county road as well as last for many years into the future.

Building fence is hard work, a post pounder allows the work to go much faster (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

Building fence is hard work, a post pounder allows the work to go much faster (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

Later that day Dad and I fed harvested hay to our heifers.  Each summer my family raises alfalfa/grass hay that we irrigate, harvest, and bale.  Much of this baled hay is sold to other livestock producers, but some of this hay is stockpiled so that we can feed our cattle during winter snow storms, drought, and when native vegetation can not meet the nutritional needs of the cattle.  These heifers are getting ready to or have given birth to calves, thus they have high nutrition requirements.  These cattle are fed in the morning and in the evening since they are in a dry lot–meaning that there is no native vegetation available for their consumption.

These heifers get an evening meal (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

These heifers get an evening meal (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

 

On Saturday we woke to a spring snow storm.  White flakes floated to the ground most of the day and cold winds whipped the snow into small drifts around buildings and fences.  During winter and early spring we like to keep our cattle in areas that provide protection from the bitter winds that are common in Wyoming.  Pastures have windbreaks and areas where cattle can take cover from the elements.  We feed around these areas to encourage cattle and their calves to stay close to fresh water and out of the wind.

Cows and their calves take cover behind a windbreak (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

Cows and their calves take cover behind a wind break (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

 

Record keeping is an important part of farming or ranching.  Calving records are one of the most important records that we keep on the farm.  Each year when a cow has her calf we record what sex of calf she had, what color her calf was, and if there were any issues that occurred.  Issues include items such as; temperament of the cow, whether assistance in calving was necessary, mothering ability, etc.  Records are kept in a little red book made especially for that purpose.  We also give the calf an ear tag with the same number and color of tag as its mother.  This way the cow and her calf can be traced throughout the year and records be kept accordingly.  Tagging a calf or cow is relatively painless, it’s basically like getting your ears pierced.

A day-old calf gets an ear tag (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

A day-old calf gets an ear tag (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

 

Sunday morning dawned cold and foggy, but the sun was soon shining and the snow began to melt.  Most Sundays on the farm are a day of rest but feeding and care of the animals still has to occur no matter the day.  Today was an exciting day as we were able to watch a calf being born just shortly before lunch.

A calf is born (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

A calf is born (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

Cows come to say welcome to the new little guy (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

Cows come to say welcome to the new little guy (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

Mamma nudges the new calf, encouraging him to stand (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

Mamma nudges the new calf, encouraging him to stand (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

The calf takes his first tentative steps (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

The calf takes his first tentative steps (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

 

His first meal (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

His first meal (Photo by: Ashley Garrelts).

 

Getting to help out on the family farm is always fun and exciting. Farmers and ranchers have a job that many people would not want to do, but they do it with pride.  They like working the land or with animals.  They do their part to ensure that there is food on our plates and clothes on our backs.  So during this National Ag Week why don’t you take a moment to thank a farmer or a rancher and ask them about why they do what they do.  Their job isn’t always easy but it sure is interesting.

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