KERSEY, Colo. - With a change in Japanese policy, a major new export market could open for Colorado ranchers who make it through the drought.
Dale Jackson looks out at his small herd of cattle on his home pasture, which would normally be covered with snow at this time of year. Most of his cows just mill about, not foraging.
He spent most of the day before mucking out the entrance to his barn so his herd could get in and out safely.
Jackson's pasture best exemplifies the balancing act Colorado cattlemen have to make this year.
Japan eased its decade-long embargo on American beef last month. The embargo was originally raised because of fears of Mad Cow Disease, a paranoia that was unfounded and scientifically based, says Colorado State University professor Jason Ahola.
The opening of the market could mean an additional $350 million in beef sales for Colorado ranchers, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Japan was only accepting cuts of beef from cows 20 months or younger. Now, beef from cows 30 months or younger will be imported.
It may not sound like much of a difference in age, but it means a drastic number for how many cows are eligible. The Department of Agriculture says that means up to 90 percent of Colorado cows could be exported to Japan now.
"So the industry is very happy about that move by Japan to removing that 20 month requirement," Ahola said. "That will once again become the largest export for U.S. beef, particularly these higher-price beef cuts."
Colorado is the third largest beef-exporting state in the U.S.
"If we can get the water and the feed for the cattle that will be a huge impact," Jackson said.
And that's the big if.
-- Drought caused herd numbers to dwindle --
Many ranchers culled their herds last year. Jackson said most people he knows cut their herd size by a quarter or more. Ahola said cow populations are now lower than they've been since the 1970s.
Those numbers won't climb back up quickly either. Jackson said many ranchers prevented their heifers from calving. A lot of cattlemen could not handle paying record-high feed prices to feed animals that won't be ready for market for another three years.
"Makes it difficult to feed one that long before you see any money," Jackson said.
Said Ahola: "Producers are really suffering now because feed prices today are about three times what they were historically."
The next 60-90 days will be critical in telling how hard of a summer it will be on cattlemen, and indirectly, how much the price for a top sirloin will be for consumers.
"The moisture basically needs to come now and probably the next 60 to 90 days," Ahola said. "And if that doesn't happen, even if it rains in July, we're - not to say doomed - but it doesn't have a good outlook."