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Ranchers battle suffocating drought

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Nathan Pike was born on this land during the Dust Bowl, but he’s never seen it this dry. With little for his cattle to eat, he has been forced to liquidate most of his herd. (Frank Morris/Harvest Public Media)
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Senior Reporter

Frank Morris is the news director at KCUR in Kansas City and a senior contributor to Harvest Public Media.

It’s hot and dry out in western Kansas in a good year.  South of Dodge City, the native grass is tough. So are the ranchers. But this year is not a good year.

Rancher Nathan Pike, 78, was born in the Dust Bowl and this is the worst drought he has ever seen. Relentless windy, hot days, with no rain have torched his pastures.

“You can see what we’re up against, this old stuff is no good at all, and we’re in a fire hazard,” Pike said, gazing out at his kinder dry fields.

Pike’s cows won’t eat the scorched grass, so he has to buy hay hauled in from greener pastures, or corn. With fields of both crops withering from Indiana to Colorado, his feed prices have spiked. Pike can’t make money feeding cattle this way, so he’s sold most of his herd to a slaughter house.

“I’ve been in the business for 62 years,” Pike said. “That’s quite a little while…This is the least cattle I’ve owned for at least 50, 52 years.”

Dan Loy, at Iowa State University, says Drought has hammered ranching states.

“We heard similar stories last year in Texas and Oklahoma,” Loy said.

With drought sparking a selloff in Kansas and Nebraska, Loy says, “the national cattle herd currently is the lowest it’s been since 1950.”   

And there were about half as many people in 1950 as there are today.   

The effects of this drought will take years to play out.

Desperation selling is suppressing beef prices for now, but it’s also butchering the production capability of this industry. Ranchers are sacrificing healthy cows that would otherwise keep having calves. 

Pike thinks this will lead to big corporations forcing ranchers like himself to work under contract instead of selling on the open market as they always have.

“What I think will happen is that the corporates will come out here and they’ll want to finance the cows… but you’re going to run a certain breed, you’re going to feed them to our specs,” Pike said. “In other words, we’re going to be serfs on our own land. And I think this is the perfect storm for it to happen.”

Dan Loy, though, isn’t so sure. He thinks ranching will recover, but it will take time.  The dead pastures of western Kansas could take years to fill in again.

In the meantime, the supply of beef is bound to tighten, leaving customers paying more and a lot of ranchers wishing they still had cattle to sell.

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