Rural Colorado ranchers face uncertainties with COVID-19

Rancher Steve Wooten herds cattle to a new pasture on his ranch in eastern Las Animas County. Photo courtesy Steve Wooten

 

by Tracy Wahl, KRCC

 

LAS ANIMAS — People throughout the state of Colorado are dealing with the impact of the new coronavirus in different ways. For many, it presents new economic questions.

That includes Steve Wooten, President of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

Wooten is a fourth generation rancher who lives about 45 miles northwest of Kim, Colorado, population 74. Kim is in the far southeastern part of the state not far from the borders of both Kansas and New Mexico. It’s in one of the most sparsely populated counties in the state and serves as a hub for cattle ranchers around Las Animas County — one of the largest counties in the state.

Wooten said his biggest concern is how the markets are responding to the new coronavirus — citing the record drops.

“When you’re living on margins of two to three percent per year and you see a twenty percent change in two weeks, that’s pretty hard,” Wooten said. And it’s not just the cattle markets that have been affected.

“It’s also wheat, corn, soybeans, milk,” he said. “Every one of our commodity products that we produce has been subject to what happened to Wall Street.”

On the upside, Wooten said that because of the way the cattle business works, the income varies depending on the season and he’s used to long periods without funds coming in.

He said that means some ranchers may be able to meet payroll in the short term but the true impact of a huge market drop may not be felt for months.

“It’s going to have long term ramifications for wheat guys and corn. That’s going to start happening to them in late summer,” Wooten said. “And then cattle guys — there’s those that are being impacted now and others that will be impacted in October, November, December.”

When it comes to dealing with COVID-19 itself, Wooten said there are at least three hospitals within a 200 mile radius. In this part of the world, that’s not really all that far. The options include Southeast Colorado Hospital and Medical Clinic in Springfield to the east, the Arkansas Regional Medical Center in La Junta to the North and and Mt. San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad to the west.

The town of Kim does have EMS ambulance service. The closest grocery store is about an hour away in La Junta. Internet service, increasingly important as schools and universities switch to online education, is spotty, Wooten said.

“There is no broadband built out in Las Animas County,” he said, although he can sometimes get a 3G connection at his house.

To make things work at home, when his grandkids need to stream video for school or fun, Wooten just “shuts down everything else so that they can take care of that.

“And we’ll pick up any business stuff after they’ve done their online work.”

At the end of the day, he remains hopeful. “I guess if there’s anything that crosses your mind is keep your fingers crossed in your prayers that friends, family and loved ones can avoid being exposed and pray for everybody’s health and safety.”

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