Dry counties

Weather Crops and cattle hang in the balance as drought in the Great Plains extends into winter | Daniel James Devine

Dry counties

“A REGULAR DISASTER”: A cow walks on a dried-up pond in a drought-ravaged pasture near Eads, Colo.
John Moore/Getty Images

Northwest Kansas farmer Rodney Bracelin doesn’t mind the 2 inches of snow that have painted his fields white and buried his crops. Actually, he’d like more of it. Bracelin’s soil is parched, and his winter wheat sprouts—planted last fall and barely 2 inches high—will need all the water they can get to awaken from dormancy next spring.

This light, dry snow is equivalent to just one-fifth of an inch of rain. “I told my wife this is what the ski slopes would call champagne powder,” he says with a chuckle. “A little insulation for the wheat.”

Bracelin, 69, is one of thousands of farmers and ranchers waiting for snow—or rain-laden clouds—to roll across the Great Plains. Last summer brought the nation’s worst drought in 50 years, and the dry spell has extended into winter. On Jan. 9, the Department of Agriculture declared 597 counties disaster areas because of the ongoing drought and heat. Over half the counties were in Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Texas—Plains states in which a third of the nation’s wheat is grown.

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Precipitation is badly needed during the next few months to water the nation’s crop of winter wheat and revive cattle pastureland that wilted last year. Ranchers, financially squeezed by poor pasture and highly priced feed, are sending so many animals to market the total number of U.S. cattle has reached a 60-year low. For consumers, the smaller herds bode ill for the price of beef.

Bracelin, of St. Francis, Kan., lives in one of the disaster-branded counties. Last year he collected between $50,000 and $60,000 in crop insurance for drought losses to his corn. This year he has 2,000 acres of winter wheat in the ground and wonders whether it will grow in May. He doesn’t have irrigation systems for the wheat, so he’s at the mercy of the weather. Currently a third of Kansas’ winter wheat crop is rated poor or very poor: “If we don’t get some moisture this spring, you’re looking at a regular disaster.”

In nearby Atwood, 64-year-old Craig Bearley raises cattle on 2,000 acres of pasture. Because vegetation growth was so poor last year, he had to spread his cows and calves over larger proportions of grazing land than usual. Two of his three pastures rely solely on spring-fed water for the cows, and last summer one went dry—a problem that has plagued many ranchers. Without a significant rain, Bearley said the pasture could dry up again this year.

To feed his herd this winter, Bearley is relying on baled hay, sorghum, and other fodder that spiked in price after last summer’s drought. He’s looking for creative feed sources to keep his costs down: He recently paid for rights to allow his cattle to graze on leftover crops that wilted under last summer’s drought and were covered by insurance. He also hopes to buy some “distillers grain”—corn kernel byproducts from local ethanol plants.

Bearley said his stock is lower than ever, down to 120 cows from about 150 a few years ago. With feed prices high, ranchers across the nation have reduced cattle inventory to 91 million animals, the lowest amount since 1952. Those who rely on income made by renting out pasture may feel the brunt of such cutbacks. “If you have nothing but rangeland, what’s it worth with no cattle on it?” asked Bearley.

“We expect to see almost a 5 percent decrease in beef production this year, and another 5 percent next year,” said Derrell Peel, a livestock specialist at Oklahoma State University’s agricultural economics department. That means the price of beef will increase at the supermarket, slowly at first, but maintaining an upward trend during the coming months. Peel expects the price of beef to rise as much as 10 percent this year, with another 10 percent or more increase in 2014. The high prices will help ranchers cover their losses from expensive feed.

Meanwhile, consumers will pay: Although overall food prices didn’t increase more than usual last year, ground beef increased almost 6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In November, the average retail price of a pound of beef reached a record high of $4.80. That pound may cost $5.28 next winter—even if it does rain, or snow, before then.

Though the blazing heat and parched conditions of last summer’s drought are a distant memory for many Midwesterners, they are the reason Mike Petersen keeps a wary eye on the Mississippi River.

These days Petersen, the public affairs chief for the St. Louis district of the Army Corps of Engineers, is more concerned about water levels than temperatures.

He and other corps members have spent the past several months dealing with the not-so-mighty Mississippi. Because of the drought, which continues in the upper regions of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, water levels by mid-January were as much as 20 feet below normal between St. Louis and the southern tip of Illinois (where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi).

The water was so low the corps was dredging the channel and blasting underwater rock formations that threatened to close the river to barges. “We need to maintain a channel that is 300 feet wide and 9 feet deep in order to allow barge traffic to move through without any problems,” Petersen said. As the river channel hovered near the minimum 9-foot depth, barge operators were forced to lighten their loads to keep the vessels from running aground.

The Mississippi is vital for moving raw materials and grain from the Upper Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico. Barges on the river carry more than half of the nation’s grain, more than a quarter of its oil and gas, and about 20 percent of its coal.

The Illinois Corn Growers Association has estimated that if the river closed for 60 days, more than 10,000 barges would be halted. To replace the carrying capacity of those barges would require 170,000 rail cars or 740,000 semitrailers.

Dredging helped keep Mississippi barges moving in January, but what’s missing is enough rain and snow to raise the level of rivers and lakes. “We’ve done about all that we can do,” Petersen said. “Now we need nature to meet us halfway.”

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