An exceptionally warm, dry winter that culminated in a 32,000-acre wildfire in northeastern Colorado hasn't prevented registered breeders in the area from having a solid bull sale season this spring.

An exceptionally warm, dry winter that culminated in a 32,000-acre wildfire in northeastern Colorado hasn’t prevented registered breeders in the area from having a solid bull sale season this spring.

“Our sale average was within $150 of last year, and we sold more bulls,” said Troy Marshall, who raises registered cattle north of Burlington, Colorado. “The Angus bulls were actually up (in price) compared to a year ago. So we were blessed. We felt like we had a really good sale.”

The outbreak of wildfires occurred while the bull sale season was getting into full swing, with many production sales, including Marshall’s, held just a week or two after friends and potential customers were suddenly confronted with scorched ranches and hundreds of dead or injured cattle.

“With the fires and the drought, not as many heifers are being kept back, and there’s plenty of bulls available,” he said. “It’s been a tale of two markets: the top third to one-half of the bulls are selling as good as a year ago or better, but the remaining sales have been off, sometimes way off. Buyers have a chance to be selective. If they don’t want a bull, they don’t seem to want him at any price.”

“At some level, when you’re taking that many cows out of production, but you still have the same supply of bulls on the market for the cows that are left, locally it can have an impact,” added Kevin Miller, who works with his father-in-law at Croissant Red Angus of Briggsdale, Colorado. “Some of those guys down in Kansas and Oklahoma will probably feel it worse than we will up here. No matter who you are, a big section of your market will always be local.”

In addition to the massive fires that grabbed headlines, smaller fires broke out too. John Lee, owner of Lee’s Cattle Company, had a fire come through his ranch near Brush right before his spring production sale.

“We lost 1,100 acres of grass and some fences,” he recounted recently. “It was a one-day event. We moved cattle to some other pastures, and we were fine. The fire went around our house and our hay and equipment, fortunately, and our neighbors helped us put it out.”

For cattlemen busy with calving season and getting ready to move cows to grass, not to mention hosting or attending spring bull sales, wildfire recovery efforts added an unanticipated burden to already long days.

Lee emphasized that his losses were small compared to what some others endured. In fact, on sale day, he donated the proceeds from Lot 18 of the sale to fire relief efforts in the Haxtun area.

“If I’d had extra hay I’d have sent it, but we’re short on hay this year,” he said.

He was still feeling frustrated by the tragedy’s lack of coverage in the national media and determined to do what he could to make up for it.

“If ranchers aren’t taking care of ranchers, nobody’s taking care of them,” he said. “We take care of our own. It’s the cowboy way.”

Croissant Red Angus also used their sale to donate a bull to fire relief, raising a total of $11,000 in donations that day, according to Miller. A member of a rural fire department in Wyoming purchased the donated bull for $9,000.

As soon as Kenny Rogers finished up his own production sale at Wagon Wheel Ranch of Yuma, Colorado, he was on the road delivering donated hay to wildfire victims in Logan and Phillips counties.

He heard heartbreaking stories of people forced to liquidate herds they had spent a lifetime building.

When it comes to annual production sales, the importance of timing can’t be underestimated, since for many breeders, a year’s paycheck arrives in a single day.

The top price paid in Rogers’ sale and his sale-wide average were both down from last year, but it was hard for him to know whether the fire to the north played a role.

“Perhaps it did,” he said. “It’s so hard to tell. There were some individuals who typically come to the sale that I did not see this year, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to them to know whether the fire contributed to that.”

Considering the lackluster agricultural economy, dry winter and exceptional volatility that has roiled cattle markets the last few years, all the breeders were pleased with how well they came out on their sales.

“Our bull sale was better than last year in terms of the total dollar amount,” Lee said. “We sold more bulls, and the average was about the same. And more people showed up. So we were pleased with our sale.”

Spring moisture, which has finally arrived across the region, is also bringing a renewed sense of hope.

“Things are looking up,” Lee said. “We got most of our fences back up, and we’re fencing off the pasture that burned. In our sandy country, we won’t be able to run cattle on that ground for at least two or three years.”

Miller, too, was encouraged by the rain but couldn’t help wishing it had come sooner. When the Croissant family held their sale in late March, conditions were still so dire that area ranchers were wondering if they might have to start selling off cows.

“If you listen to the weather guy from Cattle Fax on what spring is supposed to do, we could have decent moisture but then see summer dry back off,” Miller said. “So we’ll take whatever we can get, however it comes.” Rogers said the rain was welcome but only time would tell if conditions had really turned a corner.

“There’s optimism out there, but we’re still not out the woods yet either,” he said. “I don’t know how deep any of this went. It’s been damp and it’s been good, but we need to get some moisture down into the soil a couple of feet. We’re not fully healed yet by any means.”