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CONDITION OF THE CATTLE-RANGE INDUSTRY.
Hon. NORMAN J. COLMAN,
Commissioner of Agriculture : SIR: At this time, when every citizen of the United States is disposed to study the question of the meat supply of the land, there seems no more appropriate way of introducing my annual report than by a summary of the cattle interests of the plains.
CONDITION OF THE RANGE.
A general depression of the cattle interests of the whole country set in with the year 1885, and it has continued up to the present time, growing worse from month to month, until almost a total stagnation in ranch trading has resulted. A glance at the prices paid for beef cattle in the great market centers of the East shows an almost continuous decline in value for two years, and a present price so low as to leave literally no margin between the cost of production and the market quotations. All grades of cattle have been affected, but in this as in all other articles of commerce the inferior quality sustains the greater depreciation. For reasons that will be made plain hereafter in this report, the range beef of the West has been, as a general rule, thin in flesh, and consequently sold at the lowest figures. The average decline in values, covering the period named, is fully $15 a head on all of the beef crop of the plains. This, as a natural result, has caused a shrinkage of the fortunes of the range men, and at the same time kept new men from entering into the business, thus causing the stagnation of trade in ranch properties above referred to.
Happily for all concerned, the climax of depression seems to have been reached, and a general feeling of hope in the future is beginning to spring in the breasts of the range men. This hope is very largely based on the fact that beef production is decreasing while the demand is steadily increasing: Population is rapidly increasing in all parts of the world, noticeably so in the United States, and with that increase is developed a proportional increase in beef consumption per capita. On the contrary, the range area of the United States is annually growing less. In Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakota this is notably the case, caused by the westward movement of the farmers and the enactment of laws prohibiting the running of cattle on the open plains.
This same condition exists in Oregon, Washington Territory, and California, where thousands of settlers are crowding into the edges of the range.
In time this border country, along the line between the permanently arid or range region and the agricultural, will produce as many and perhaps more cattle than when it was used exclusively as a range, but the transition period will be one of non-production. Generally speaking, the persons who settle on this questionable area are poor men who have no cattle, and whose utmost exertions will be required for years to simply produce food and raiment for their families. Again, the land taken from the range, if capable of grain production, will be wholly devoted to that use for a number of years, because new land makes a crop every year.
By the time the cream has been taken off and the conditions changed, so as to make this belt a stock country, the population will have increased to such an extent as to more than balance the gain in cattle thus produced, so that we are justified in figuring this detachment from the grazing area as permanently gone.
Another reason for the hope that the tide has been out to the full length of the ebb is the fact that in all branches of trade and manufactures in the East there is a very perceptible revival setting in. Periods of activity and depression follow each other in all branches of trade or productive occupations as regularly as ebbs and flows the tide, and that a return to prosperous conditions for the beef-producing industry will follow the present unsatisfactory relations of that industry is as certain as that sunshine follows cloud.
The actual condition of the range coun ry to-day is far better than is generally believed to be the case, even among rangemen themselves. The country bordering on the hundredth meridian, and extending from Dakota to Texas, suffered a very material loss in its herds during the winter of 1885–86; and the spring and early summer of 1886 proved so dry as to cause starvation to thousands of cattle in western Texas and on the border of New Mexico. Outside of these the losses for last year were comparatively light.
The 1st of December, 1886, ushered in a winter range well cured and reasonably abundant, from the Gulf of Mexico on the south to the British Possessions on the north, and covering the entire arid belt from east to west. The only exceptions to this rule are to be found in a small area reaching from northern Wyoming up into Montana for a short distance, and lying east of the base of the Rocky Mountains. Besides this belt there is a part of central and western Nevada that is short of winter range, caused by the lack of snow-fall on the mountains last winter and the consequent forcing of the herds into the winter range in search of water during the late summer and early fall. No serious losses will be sustained in either of these districts unless the winter proves to be more severe than the present prospects indicate,
There will be losses, of course, all over the range. There must, of necessity, always be. But they are not likely to be of any such proportions as to overcome the percentage of profit. There are many old cows on the range, having been kept to too great an age because of the high price of young stock a few years ago. Among these there will be the heaviest losses, but many ranch men are prepared to feed them, and thus carry them through. Upon the whole, the outlook at the beginning of 1887 is decidedly hopeful so far as range conditions are concerned.
One of the most serious conditions of the range country to-day is the
DANGER FROM OVERSTOCKING.
Every acre of the arid belt is full of stock. From the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains east to the grain fields of the Missouri and