Weather and grass —the perennial topics of coffee shop conversation in rural America—have become a fixation for farmers and ranchers as record high heat and record low moisture bakes the soil from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Lakes.
The grass is gone where my shirttail herd of bison recently completed this year’s calving season in eastern Colorado. The price of medium-quality hay is climbing past $250/ton. Don’t even ask about high-quality hay.
Conventional producers are burning up the phone lines seeking enough feed and forage to keep their animals alive. For certified organic ranchers, those calls involve a lot more long distance tolls. Organic producers cannot simply call around the county to find surplus pasture or hay because the organic regulations require that animals be housed on certified organic land and fed certified organic hay, forage and feed.
Provisions in the organic regulations allow producers to provide temporary confinement to protect the health and life of animals, and during periods of inclement weather. Another section allows the USDA to grant temporary variances to the feed requirements because of natural disasters. By the time those temporary variances are granted, though, the supply of available feed has likely been locked down by the neighboring conventional producers.
Consequently, organic producers are making some short-term management decisions that will have a long-term impact on the price and availability of organic meat and dairy products on the shelf.
Herd liquidations are already underway in many areas. Organic meat prices may dip as producers send animals to market as they cull their herds, but the long-term impact will be severe. Even if rains return to the prairies tomorrow, the recovery will take years. Some producers will simply walk away from organic production.
Rebuilding a herd isn’t like replacing widgets on an assembly line. Many of the animals going to harvest this summer are part of breeding herds that have been developed through generations of careful selection for characteristics that were well-suited for the grasses and climatic conditions of a specific ranch or region. Replacing those animals won’t be easy for any farmer. Organic producers seeking to rebuild herds down the road will face the additional challenge of selecting animals from certified organic herds.
The price premium posted on organic products has long been a sore spot for many consumers. Those higher prices are required because producing organic food is simply more difficult. The withering drought is compounding the degree of difficulty.
Higher prices on the shelf in coming months may not be welcome, but are the only way that organic producers stand a chance to weather this drought.