The chill of recession touches ranchers, but energy earnings help some

It's park-your-muddy-boots-at-the-door season here in the rolling ''flatlands'' of the Big Horn Mountains, and so Don Meike is in his stocking feet by the fireplace as he sketches in the Wyoming ranching picture.

''Agriculture is at the lowest state it's been in years. Lamb prices have been down for three years,'' says Mr. Meike, who has just stepped down as chairman of the National Wool Growers Association. ''And pickup trucks are at the highest level in years.''

Robert Carver of the University of Wyoming Extension Service in Laramie echoes the same sad song, with somewhat more comprehensive statistics: ''There's concern across the state. Prices are half what they were in 1979.''

The total value of the state's roughly 1 million sheep and lambs fell from $ 69 million to $57 million from the beginning of last year to the first of this year. Value per head of the state's 1.5 million cattle is off, too, although the state's herds are increasing, making for higher total value.

Some ranchers are selling out; others would if they could, but the market is slow, especially for ranches with little in the way of ''amenity value,'' such as an attractive view. Prices are falling, especially in areas where mineral potential isn't there to hold them up. ''Ranches that should have gone for $100 an acre are now going for $65 an acre,'' Mr. Meike says.

It's been a rough 10 years for Wyoming ranchers, who account for some 85 percent of the state's agriculture-industry income.The last three years have been especially tight. Their problems are similar to those confronting ranchers and farmers around the country. Prices are flat or declining at a time of escalating costs for fuel, equipment (even a ''small'' tractor goes for some $40 ,000), feeds, and professional services. There are cash-flow problems. Ranchers typically borrow against next year's production. Interest rates and fuel prices are mercifully easing, but they were high for a long time.

Inventory is a problem for livestock growers, too; they can't have any. Unsold cattle can't just be put on a shelf like so many doorknobs, says Bob Budd , executive secretary of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. They keep eating into a grower's assets - literally.

Also troublesome has been a falloff in consumer demand for beef. ''All those flower children - they wanted to eat weeds,'' Mr. Budd says derisively. Unfortunately for him and other ranchers, the alfalfa-sprouts crowd is now a large chunk of the nation's supermarket shoppers, and they don't eat as much red meat as their parents did.

Wyoming is the country's No. 3 sheep state, behind Texas and California. Though cattle are bigger business here than sheep, there are so many other cattle-raising states that Wyoming is actually quite far down on the list in that industry. Tradition notwithstanding, there are many more cattle grazing away beneath the Florida palms than on Wyoming's rolling sagebrush hills. The reason is the sparseness of local grassland. It takes up to 50 acres of rangeland to graze one head of cattle here, as compared with as little as one acre a head in Georgia or Florida.

Rising land values in years past prompted many ranchers to borrow against equity, up to the 50 percent limit. Subsequent price declines have left many of them overextended, and some grim cases have ended in foreclosure.

But here in Wyoming, energy development has given the path of land prices a curious twist. Energy earnings have enabled some marginal ranchers to stay in business, even as general price increases have mineral deposits have kept more successful cattle and sheep raisers from expanding. ''Well, I guess that's life ,'' Mr. Meike says good-naturedly.

He and his younger brother, Pete Jr., pull on their boots and jump into a pickup truck for a spin around the 30,000 acres on which they raise 4,000 head of sheep and 800 head of cattle. (A majority of Wyoming ranchers raise both.)

The sheep, well upholstered against the winter in their as-yet-unsheared coats, almost blend into the gray-green sagebrush. Expecting food, they come out to greet the pickup truck like villagers curious to hear what a visiting politician has to say. Baa, baa. The ewes are mostly Rambouillets, the most common breed in the country, with a sprinkling of black-faced Suffolk rams for crossbreeding. An occasional Rambouillet ram, with his elegant curved horns, is to be seen moving placidly through the flock.

Sheepskin is too tender to take a firebrand - and the wool would soon cover such a brand anyway - so sheep are given a paint brand every year after shearing. A forest-green ''DM'' can be read on the backs of this flock. On closer inspection the sheep can be seen to be wearing ''earrings'' of different colors for different age groups.

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