On parched Plains, ranchers still adjusting herd counts, especially in western Kan.; more moisture a must.
By Amy Bickel - The Hutchinson News - email@example.com
Driving across the region looking for cattle to buy, Mike Samples takes one of the countless calls he is getting this month from ranchers in the drought-stricken Great Plains.
This time it is a sale barn owner in Nebraska wanting him to buy cows.
For the few Kansans who haven't noticed the poor condition of Kansas' parched prairie, loiter in Samples' Salina livestock market on sale day. With some of his territory entering into a third year of drought, he's seeing an onslaught of cows grace the sale ring as ranchers bring in what remains of their already depleted cowherds.
"We have cows here from western Kansas, from Nebraska," said Samples, who operates Farmers and Ranchers Livestock, one of the largest sale barns in the state. "We have cows all the way from Colorado because of the dry weather - cows that we wouldn't normally be selling this time of year."
In fact, at the barn's monthly cow sale Tuesday, cow numbers were up more than 15 percent from a year ago, which was another drought-plagued year for the record books.
Across some parts of the Midwest, including Kansas, fear of another of drought lingers. Two years of little rainfall already has cost the state's farmers more than $3 billion in 2012 and $1.8 billion in 2011 in crop losses - the loss of production and the price farmers would have received.
Moreover, the effects of multiple years of dry weather have taken a toll on the land. About 96 percent of Kansas is in a moderate to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. And most of the western half of the state falls in the highest ranking, extreme to exceptional.
It's too soon, however, for predictions of what the summer will bring. Snow this winter and rain this spring have brought some welcome relief, especially in the eastern half of the state. Consistent rains and cool temperatures - much different from a year ago - have muddied fields and slowed corn planting. However, those in the west who are trucking cattle to Salina are experiencing an entirely different scenario.
"The rain is helping here, but it's not helping the places that aren't getting rain," Samples said. "They're in a tough situation."
Few rain clouds
Across much of the Midwest, drought has persisted since summer 2010. As drought wore on, ranchers have done the only thing they could as they watched their pastures bake, their feed costs skyrocket and their ponds dry up: They culled their cattle.
The number of beef cattle in Kansas feedlots is now at its lowest point in 14 years. On April 1, there were 2.05 million cattle in Kansas feedlots, down 4 percent from a year ago. The parched pastures, along with shriveled corn and hay crops, have made it costlier to feed, as well.
In its weekly report, the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service rates the Kansas range and pasture condition as 62 percent poor or very poor. Another report released Wednesday rated the condition of Flint Hills pasture - one of the larger grazing areas of the state - as more than 50 percent poor or very poor.
A third year of drought - and culling - would be devastating, especially in the nation's third largest beef-producing state, with more than 6 million head.
Rain is improving conditions in some areas. But while there have been a few showers in western Kansas, it hasn't been nearly enough, said Rich Hruska, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dodge City-based Ag Market News Service.
Elkhart has received just 1.33 of an inch of rain since Jan. 1, according to the National Weather Service. Dodge City's precipitation total is 2.68 for the year.
Subsoil moisture across northwest and southwest Kansas is more than 90 percent short or very short, according to KASS.
"It's all going to depend on Mother Nature," Hruska said. "We need rain in feet, not inches. We are way behind, and right now, everyone with a cowherd is hanging on and hoping.
"When rain clouds come by, everyone wants to rope it and say, 'Stay here and rain.' "
Unlike Salina, Hruska said, producers haven't flooded western Kansas cattle markets in Dodge and Pratt this spring - at least not yet - largely because they've already culled deep into their herds.
"The cows that producers moved out last year, two years ago, they haven't been replaced," he said.
In Salina, Samples said he is planning a special cow sale June 4 as the drought causes cow numbers at his business to continue to stay above the sale barn's normal spring average.
Brian Winter, with Dodge City-based Winter Livestock, an auction house that owns several sale barns in Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado, said his sale barns are seeing normal numbers as ranchers in his territory are trying to hold on to the small number of cattle that remain in their herds.
"We've been 40 to 60 percent stocked for the past decade," Winter said of southwest Kansas' pastures, adding that the cool spring temperatures have kept pastures dormant.
As temperatures warm and if no rain comes, his market could see start seeing an influx of cattle as soon as the end of May.
Even ranchers who put cattle on the Cimarron National Grassland are trying to hold on to their small herds. About 1,700 head of cattle will go out on 105,000-acre grassland May 15, down 67 percent from the normal stocking rate, said Jeff Stoney, the acting district ranger for the grassland.
The grassland, located in Kansas' far southwestern county of Morton, was created in the wake of the Dust Bowl days - a solution that helped stop the blowing dirt. The Morton County Grazing Association members, who hold the contract to the grassland, have been stocking cattle on the grassland since the mid-1940s.
In a normal year, the association can put up to 5,200 head on the pastures. It has been a while, however, since there has been a normal year. Stoney estimates the last time the grassland was fully stocked was 2007.
He and his rangers will monitor conditions and pull cattle early if there isn't rain.
"We're way low on moisture," he said. "We need some rain. We're supposed to have a storm roll through here today and tomorrow, but what we need is more serious that just a few rains."