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The West 2000 Page 8

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Of ranchers surveyed, most said that between 25 and 50 percent of family income is produced from an off-ranch source.

Like farmers, independent ranchers in America today find it difficult, but not impossible, to make a living from the ranch alone. The tendency to larger corporate operations in ranching is nothing new in the West, but the cost of doing business has risen significantly in legal fees and the requirements to meet new regulations.

As with farmers, sharp disparities are evident in production and profit: A medium-sized feedlot generally east of the Rockies, for example, averages about 10,000 head of cattle, while the average cow-calf operation is 49 head. In the West, where there are fewer feedlots, a viable cow-calf operation is considered to be around 300 head.

Although herds are clearly larger in the West, smaller operations are more jeopardized by flat prices and additional regulations. Calf production in the 1990s reached its lowest point since 1952. The result has been that while ranching remains an alluring occupation for many, economic and regulatory pressures have forced others to sell their deeded land, thus contributing to urbanized development and the concentration of production into fewer large operations.

While the federal agencies acknowledge they have an “inadequate data base” in public lands grazing, several western states have begun analyzing effects of recent federal policy on local economies.

In Nevada, the most heavily federalized state, a study of six counties documented a loss of public grazing by over 340,000 AUMs since 1980. The annual monetary loss to local economies in this region was estimated by the University of Nevada, Reno to be $12.3 million a year, and a one-time loss to the affected ranching operations of $12.8 million. At least 167 full-time jobs were also eliminated.

The true value and cost of public grazing is thus left to be defined by government management in context with the effect on local cultural and economic values.
* An Animal Unit Month (AUM) is the amount of forage sufficient to sustain a cow and a calf or five sheep for a month
  • Almost by definition, public grazing lands in the West are not as productive of forage as are private pastures and thus require more restrictive care by the permit holder.

Taking into account the total costs to the permit holder, independent academic research has concluded that the total cost to ranchers grazing on public lands is about $16.17 per AUM (including the federal grazing fee), compared to an average total cost of $15.31 on private land.

The fact is that it would be cheaper for the rancher to graze his cattle on private land in the West–if that land were available.

According to industry reports, since 1989, about 50 percent of federal jobs in direct land management staff, including range conservation officers, have been eliminated. This has compressed federal management of public lands into an increasingly administrative capacity without direct involvement on the range except to impose new regulations.

At the same time, the value to rural communities in employment, services and goods from permittee ranchers commonly accounts for the most stable and significant share of the local economy in ranching areas.

In a 1996 survey that asked ranchers what they would do if grazing were prohibited on public land, 21 percent said they would retire, 16 percent said they would find a new occupation, 21 percent said they would sell their private land for development. The majority, 57 percent, said they would reduce the size of their operation.


Much as is the case in all American agriculture, cattle-raisers tend to be middle-aged or older, with ranchers under the age of 35 representing the least percentage with the heaviest debt.

Note: 1994-96 average, in 1996 dollars. State Trust figures are based on the average figures for state-managed lands, including Arizona, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Oregon. Idaho data was provided for 1995 and 1996 only. Costs include all surface management.


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