Water for Cattle and Sheep

The cattle industry started in Colorado in the 1860s as a result of growing trade between Texas and Kansas. The ranchers used the open range in Colorado to fatten up herds from Texas before sending them to Kansas. However, in the late 1880s and early 1890s because of declining cattle prices, devastating winters, major cattle loss, and a financial panic, the open range cattle industry collapsed. This abrupt ending led to a new cattle industry comprised of local livestock farmers in Fort Collins. The cattle eventually found themselves on large commercial feedlots in the area and many are still there to this day.1

In Northern Colorado one head of cattle uses about 2.25 acre-feet of water per year. According to the US Agricultural Census of 2007 there are approximately 20,000 head of cattle in the Fort Collins area that were using water from the Cache la Poudre River. That means that an average of 45,000 acre-feet of water was used from the Cache la Poudre River in 2007 by the cattle industry. The following chart shows on average how much water the cattle in Larimer County used per year. 2

The sheep industry began in Fort Collins in the early 1870s when William N. Bachelder imported 150 purebred Merino’s from Vermont. By the late 1870s, many ranchers had followed Bachelder’s example, and Larimer County had about 75,000 range sheep. The number of range sheep grew so rapidly that by 1886 there were about 2 million sheep in the state.3

This growth came with a cost. The cattle ranchers were strongly opposed to the sheepmen. The main issue of contention was the matter of open range land. Cattlemen argued that the sheep would crop the grass too closely leaving nothing for the cattle. This resulted in conflicts between the cousin industries.

In 1889, a severe winter forced two sheepmen to winter their flock east of Fort Collins. Their flock thrived on the alfalfa and corn provided for it, and the sheep feeding industry in the Cache la Poudre River Valley began in earnest. As a result, Fort Collins’ grew a reputation for woolgrowing. The success of the industry led to the creation of “Lamb Day”; a short-lived festival that celebrated the rising sheep industry.4

The struggle over open range land led to the use of locally grown crops to feed the growing flocks. In the woolgrowing industry today, this is the primary way the flocks are fed. The industry has had its ups and downs since its inception. (See graph below) However, since 1992, the sheep industry in Larimer County has declined steadily.

In Northern Colorado it takes about 1.5 to 3 acre feet of water to produce once acre of alfalfa per season. One acre of alfalfa feeds about 3.5 sheep per year. By taking that formula, one can see roughly how much water is used to feed sheep per year in Larimer County. Even though there are no statistics specific to the Poudre River, the county-wide numbers show a decrease in sheep and water usage.5

  1. Carl McWilliams and Karen McWilliams, Agriculture in the Fort Collins Urban Growth Area 1862-1994. Historic Contexts and Survey Report, Presented to the City of Fort Collins Planning Department (Fort Collins: Carl McWilliams and Karen McWilliams, Cultural Resource Historians, 1995), 27 -28.
  2. Due to some conflicting data, certain years were left out.
  3. McWilliams, Agriculture in the Fort Collins Urban Growth Area 1862-1994, 69.
  4. McWilliams, Agriculture in the Fort Collins Urban Growth Area 1862-1994, 69.
  5. McWilliams, Agriculture in the Fort Collins Urban Growth Area 1862-1994, 68. This does not equal the total amount of water each sheep consumes. Sheep eat more than alfalfa and these statistics do not account for how much water they drink.

Recent News