As Wyoming heads into spring, producers and economists say the state’s agricultural sector is cautiously recovering from the impact of COVID-19 and enduring uncertainty over the continuing drought.

According to a third quarter 2020 economic summary by the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information’s Economic Analysis Division, the index of prices received for all U.S. livestock dropped to 84, the lowest in about 10 years.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only disrupted the supply chain, it also severely affected demand patterns from different consumers, said Wenlin Liu, division chief economist.

“By the end of the year, the price index had rebounded somewhat,” Liu said.

Last spring, the closure of restaurants and processing plants, interruptions to supply lines, drought conditions and trade battles with China all tempered future expectations for agricultural producers.

“Back eight months ago, in fact, we thought this (COVID-19 and drought) was going to be an incredible disaster for our industry,” said rancher Jim Magana, Wyoming Cattle Grower’s Association executive vice president. “But as it turned out, I think most people had a decent year.”

There are 12,000 farm operations in Wyoming, managing 29 million acres of land, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). According to a 2020 food and agriculture industries study for Feeding the Economy (feedingtheeconomy.com), Wyoming agriculture was directly responsible for nearly 47,000 jobs and more than $1 billion in related wages in production, manufacturing, wholesaling, on-premise and off-premise retailing. The direct economic output from agriculture totaled nearly $4.6 billion, generating $1.05 billion in local, state and federal taxes and more than $9 million in exports.

Annually, beef cattle production is the largest segment of Wyoming agriculture. Industry reports state that, on average, Wyoming is home to about 1.4 million cows, earning the state nearly $600 million a year in beef sales. The state also produces about $65 million in hay, $32 million in barley, $31 million in wheat and $28 million in corn each year.

A recent report by the NASS Wyoming office indicated that cattle-related production in Wyoming was somewhat stable at the end of 2020, with some areas slightly up and others slightly down, compared to a year earlier.

The NASS reported that the Jan. 1, 2021, inventory of all cattle and calves in Wyoming totaled 1.3 million head, down 2% from the January 1, 2020, inventory. Beef cows, at 702,000 head, were down 22,000 head from the previous year. Milk cows increased 2,000 head from last year to 8,000 head. Wyoming’s 2020 calf crop, at 660,000 head, was down 1% from 2019.

Other NASS estimates as of Jan. 1, 2021, and percent changes from 2020 were: Beef replacement heifers 500 pounds and over, down 3% to 155,000 head; milk replacement heifers 500 pounds and over, unchanged at 4,000 head; other heifers 500 pounds and over, unchanged at 126,000 head; steers 500 pounds and over, up 10% to 170,000 head; bulls 500 pounds and over, down 11% to 40,000 head; and calves under 500 pounds, down 5% to 95,000 head. The total inventory included 74,000 head of cattle and calves on feed, up 6% from last year.

Nationally, the NASS reported commercial red meat production for the U.S. in December 2020 was up 3% from December 2019. Overall, from January through December 2020, commercial red meat production was up 1% from 2019, veal was down 14%, pork was up 2%, and lamb and mutton production were down 7%.

Wyoming ranks fourth in the nation with more than 340,000 sheep.

Like beef, prices for lamb and wool declined at the start of pandemic shutdown in March, said Amy Wallop Hendrickson, Wyoming Wool Growers Association executive director. She said lamb demand fell as restaurants and processing plants closed and the impact of the trade war with China added to wool producers’ woes.

Since August, prices for Wyoming lamb and wool have rebounded, she said, though there are still large supplies of Wyoming wool waiting to be sold. Hendrickson anticipates that with the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, demand for lamb by restaurants and wool by manufacturers will increase in 2021.

“We do see a trend, according to the American Lamb Board, in consumers being interested in experimenting at home with new dishes,” Hendrickson said. “And for Wyoming wool, we are fairly well suited for a recovery. And that is because we have very good quality wool. We have producers who have a long history of wool growing, have animals with very good genetics, and who provide very good quality nutrition and care of their animals. Wyoming also has an environment that provides low contamination for wool. And that means higher prices.”

Still, after the economic strains of the pandemic, some producers can’t wait for a turnaround in 2021, Hendrickson said. “I just talked to a producer who said, ‘I can’t do it anymore,’” Hendrickson said.

Wyoming crop production by value is led by hay, followed by barley, corn, and wheat. Wheat leads in the amount of cultivated acreage planted at 120,000 acres in 2020, down from 125,000 acres, according to the NASS.

Keith Kennedy, Wyoming Wheat Marketing Commission executive director, said winter wheat (planted in fall 2019) losses in 2020 were affected by an infestation of wheat stem sawfly. Prospects for 2021 will be influenced by the drought’s impact on winter wheat planted in fall 2020.

“Many producers are surprised at how well the crop looked in early winter given our lack of moisture,” Kennedy said. “Certainly, once winter wheat has been established, in Wyoming the most critical months for precipitation are late March, April and May. We’re all hoping the drought situation sees improvement.”

NASS reported Wyoming alfalfa hay prices dropped to $170 per ton in December 2020 from a high of $185 per ton in December 2019. But the price was still higher than the national average of $167. Other hay prices increased from $150 per ton in December 2019 to $170 per ton in December 2020, above the national average of $134.

Sugar beet production for 2020 was forecast to be at 921,000 tons, up 36% from the 679,000 tons produced in 2019. Growers expect to harvest 30,200 acres, compared with 24,000 acres in 2019.

January brought little change to Wyoming’s drought conditions, according to the NASS Wyoming office.

There were multiple reports of dry, windy conditions and little snowfall, and comments from observers across the state indicated concern for the coming year:

The United States Drought Monitor for Jan. 21 reported the amount of Wyoming land rated as abnormally dry was 6.9%, down from 8.3% in December.

Moderate drought was present across 34.5% of the state, an increase from 33.2% from December.

Severe drought covered 28.6% of the state, compared to 28.4% in the previous month.

Extreme drought conditions covered 25.4% of Wyoming, and exceptional drought conditions covered 0.4% of the state, unchanged from December.

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