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Drought and wildfire threaten America's cattle capital

Ranchers face the risk of starving cattle after drought, wildfire, and prolonged high temperatures scorch parts of the heartland. Water reserves were used to fight fires, leaving little for farmers.

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A mother and her calf idle in dead grassland on the Swenson Ranch outside Stamford, Texas, in this photo from May 21. Severe drought and millions of acres of wildfires have delivered a potent one-two punch this year, forcing tough decisions on ranchers across cattle country.

Elliott Blackburn / Reuters /. File

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As if the heartland hasn’t faced enough this summer, with wildfires, droughts, and punishing heat, cattle ranchers are now facing a hay shortage.

The triple-digit temperatures, expected to result in the worst drought north-central Texas has ever experienced, follows spring wildfires, which scorched millions of acres that traditionally nourish the nation’s largest steer population – five million head of cattle.

Most Texas pasture and range lands – 86 percent – are currently “poor” or “very poor,” according to the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The same rating applied to 69 percent of Oklahoma and 40 percent of Kansas.

The hardships this year “don’t compare to any in recent years,” says Jason Miller, a county agriculture agent for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service (TALES). “The ranchers are just holding on.”

July temperatures have topped 110 degrees in the heart of cattle country, from Texas to Kansas. Ranchers complain that not only did the wildfires destroy the hay population, they also burned summer crops such as wheat or cotton, that usually can be counted on to support rural economies when there are dips in the cattle market.

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