“The Great Die Up” is one of three nicknames for the winter of 1886–87, when hundreds of thousands of cattle across the Great Plains died in harsh weather. The event changed the cattle industry forever, ending the practice of open-range grazing. Ranchers also called this weather event “The Big Die-Up,” or “Death’s Cattle Round-Up.” The deadly winter helped usher in an era of smaller-scale ranching and federal rangeland management to prevent massive, livestock-caused environmental degradation.
Between 1880 and 1885, the open-range cattle industry peaked in both cattle numbers and rancher profits. This was partly because many large cattle operations grazed on what was called the open range—a boundaryless way of grazing cattle on public land with little to no oversight. In some accounts, ranchers counted close to 80,000 head herded in a season. Cattlemen drove these huge numbers of livestock across the Great Plains to rail lines to be shipped to stockyards in places such as Kansas City and Chicago. From there, the cattle went to slaughterhouses to supply beef to other parts of the country, especially fast-growing urban areas.
Although it was profitable for large cattle companies, the open range came at a high environmental cost. The large-scale cattle drives degraded soils and reduced plant life across western rangelands. Millions of hooves compacted soils, making it difficult for plant life to regrow. Cattle also eroded the banks of streambeds and other water sources. Cattle trampled soils and removed vegetation, making it easier for water to carry away more sediment. When stream banks are eroded like this, water in the streambed dissipates faster. Additionally, overgrazing reduced grasses that were key to holding soils together, resulting in loose topsoil that was prone to erosion. Together, these effects of overgrazing made the rangelands vulnerable in a drought.
The profitability of the open-range cattle industry did not last long. Cattle prices dropped in 1885, partly because of the overgrazed and denuded landscape. The following summer, drought struck and further reduced grasses for livestock. The hot summer also dried water sources that cattlemen depended on. The lack of forage and water made it difficult to fatten herds. In the San Luis Valley, the summer drought sparked disputes over grazing lands. Under these conditions, the cattle industry was in a fragile state and could not withstand additional pressure.
A Harsh Winter in the West
Nature did not relent that year. The 1886 winter was brutal, starting early and including at least one intense storm every month. In mid-November, for example, a large blizzard blanketed the plains, covering forage the cattle needed to graze and leading to their starvation. With bitter cold and heavy snows continuing through March, cattle began to die or disappear in large numbers. The snow and cold temperatures made grazing almost impossible, and some blizzards were so intense that many cattle disappeared from their herds, lost or dead.
On the northern Front Range, nearly 25 percent of cattle did not make it through the winter of 1886–87, affecting both large landholders and smallholders. Across the state, the number of large-scale cattle companies was slashed from fifty-eight in 1885 to just nine in 1888. In one telling example, the Poudre Livestock Company lost two-thirds of its herd, or $400,000 worth of cattle. Small cattle companies also felt the effects. Fort Collins stockman Peter Anderson lost 3,000 head, leaving him with almost no herd. In total, hundreds of thousands of cattle are said to have died, though reliable sources on the losses are unavailable.
End of an Era
Across the West, the Great Die Up helped to end the days of massive cattle drives across the open range. Before the winter of 1886–87, American and European investors saw the American West as a place of limitless natural abundance, and they invested heavily in the cattle industry. Their investments overstocked the range, creating a surplus of livestock that contributed to the degradation of the range. The Great Die Up was the final blow, as prices dropped even further, investors lost their money, and cattle companies went out of business.
Many small-scale ranchers also suffered. However, given their smaller acreages and herds, they fared better through the winter. With less land and fewer cattle, small-scale ranchers were better able to keep track of their herds, tend to them in winter storms, and move them from areas where forage was depleted. Many in the livestock business adopted practices used by small-scale ranchers, such as reducing herd sizes and keeping cattle in smaller, barbed-wire–fenced pastures, in hopes of avoiding another economic catastrophe.
In addition to reducing herd sizes, the livestock industry took other measures to protect against another catastrophe like the Great Die Up. Ranchers and cattle associates worked together to limit overgrazing and take better care of the land and their livestock. Fences were one significant change. The once-boundaryless rangelands across the West now hosted miles of fences, ending open-range grazing. Fences also allowed ranchers to close off sections of range to prohibit grazing and allow forage to regrow. Furthermore, beginning in the 1890s, Colorado Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Colorado State University) in Fort Collins offered new courses for small-scale ranchers and farmers designed to help them better manage their land. The federal government also became more involved in the early 1900s, when the US Forest Service began monitoring rangelands and implementing a permit system for cattle ranchers to minimize overgrazing.