No water, no food: Klamath ranchers truck cattle elsewhere

August 15, 2013
No water, no food: Klamath ranchers truck cattle elsewhere

By Samantha Tipler / Klamath Falls Herald and News

KLAMATH FALLS — On Aug. 1 and 2, Marc Bourdet had to send 1,100 head of cattle off his family’s ranch on Modoc Point to greener pastures. It took 17 truckloads to move the cattle to better grazing ground north, in the Klamath Marsh area.

“I can’t believe this is happening," he said is what kept rolling through his mind.

“It was an emotional day," agreed his mother, Linda Long.

This year, for the first time, Bourdet chose to lease the land from his parents to run cattle “on the gain." That means someone else owns the cattle, but while they graze on Bourdet’s land they gain weight. Bourdet is paid for the pounds the cattle gain.

Usually the cattle ship out in early October. This year it happened two months early. The Bourdet and Long family’s water was turned off June 26. Without irrigation the grass doesn’t grow, the cattle don’t eat and they don’t gain weight.

“Shipping the cattle always happens," Bourdet said, “but I guess that was the day reality set in. This sucks."

Long and Bourdet estimated there are about 4,500 head of cattle in the Modoc Point area, most of which are being sold or shipped elsewhere.

“I think they’ve been rolling cattle pretty steadily," Bourdet said.

He heard of people selling cattle in the Fort Klamath area. Long had heard of cattle leaving the Sprague River area as well.

“A lot of people are selling their cow herds," she said. “They can’t raise enough hay, can’t finish the season of grazing, can’t afford to keep ’em."

The drought and the enforcement of water adjudication proved a one-two punch to knock out cattle ranching in the Upper Klamath Basin this year.

In early June, the Klamath Tribes and Klamath Project irrigators made calls for water, leading the local watermaster to shut off irrigators in the upper Basin to keep tribal in-stream rights whole. Even with a few summer rainstorms, Bourdet said he’s barely gotten a quarter inch of water on his land in recent weeks. Without irrigation water, the grass doesn’t grow.

Bourdet has 250 cattle left on the land he leased from his parents. He hopes the stubby grass with a bit of green left in it will be enough to feed the animals for the rest of the season.

“We think the ranch’ll hold that long," he said. “You can see it in that field right there, that should have six inches of grass in it right now."

Shipping the 1,100 cattle early meant they lost out on gaining about 120 pounds each. That is about a third of the total weight the cattle would have gained in a summer.

Bourdet moved the cattle before the grass got thin enough that the cattle could have lost weight.

“That’s why we moved them when we did," he said. “We didn’t want them to start going backwards."

Bourdet said he was “upside down" on the money he put into the cattle versus what he will earn this year.

“This cost me quite a bit of money," he said.

And because he’s leasing ground from his parents, they lose out, too.

“He doesn’t get paid, we don’t get paid," Long said.

“They got half their rent," Bourdet said.

“So our bank got half its payment and we’re scrounging to get the other half," Long said.

“It’s a vicious cycle," Bourdet said, “but it goes right down the drink."

What’s next?

Long asked Bourdet, if he could be king for a day and get anything he wanted, what would it be?

“A water agreement," he said without hesitation. “I’d like to know that we’re going to have water."

Long is working on the Klamath Basin task force, a group working this summer to hammer out a water agreement and a solution to the current situation.

Bourdet wants the group to find a solution so he can keep ranching, and keep the Klamath Basin economy going, he said.

“If you ruin agriculture, farming, there’s not much logging anymore and those are the three biggest industries in the Basin," he said. “Once those are gone, there goes the Basin, pretty much."

For the rest of the season, Bourdet will do odd jobs for other ranches. But he considers his stint at running a herd on his family’s land done for the year. Without the ability to irrigate, he lost out on two months when the cattle would have had good gain, and then he lost two months of fall pasture.

“This pretty much cut my season in half," he said. “It’d be like getting fired the first of December with Christmas coming and 20 people to buy presents for. It’d be about like running into Christmas with no job and no prospects."

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