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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.