Ranchers Now Faced With Difficult Decisions As Drought and Wildfires Wage War on the Plains

A ranch in southwest Kansas battled two wildfires in just five days as high winds and desperately dry conditions are proving to be ripe for wildfires. As a result, Cooper and Chelsea Adams lost 5,000 acres of pasture, as well as five newborn calves.
A ranch in southwest Kansas battled two wildfires in just five days as high winds and desperately dry conditions are proving to be ripe for wildfires. As a result, Cooper and Chelsea Adams lost 5,000 acres of pasture, as well as five newborn calves.
(Photo Courtesy of Chelsea Adams )

High winds and eerily dry conditions across Kansas and the Southern Plains have created what’s been a battleground for continuous wildfires this year. The drought-plagued area was already showing severe signs of what little to no rain-fed water will do, but fires are also robbing ranchers of vital grass.

Cooper and Chelsea Adams are the fifth generation of the Adams family to run cattle in the southwest corner of Kansas. What is typically a lush landscape for cattle ready to graze is now a backdrop covered in dirt and ashes.

“That fire was roaring so fast, 60- to 70-mile an hour gusts that day they said, it had already covered one entire pasture by the time I get down there,” says Cooper Adams.

The 70 MPH winds hit his area of Kansas on April 6. With the winds and dry conditions, the fire risk was high, but when Adams found out the fire was on their property, his first thought was saving whatever cattle he could.

“We went to the tail end of it and fortunately were able to get two sets of cows moved across the highway,” he says. “They were in an area that had not been burned, but I wasn't going to wait and see if that wind was going to change, so we got them moved and then went to looking for other cows. You drive over a hill, and you just never know exactly what you're going to see.”

 Somehow, the majority of his herd was able to survive the wildfires, with some of the animals finding cover by a waterhole on the river. But the ranch didn’t escape it all, Adams lost some newborn calves and a large amount of grass.

 “I lost five, maybe six baby calves is best I can tell for now, and about 15 miles of fence, and then about 5,000 acres of grass,” he says.

The fire was originally believed to be started by arson, but the Kansas State Patrol took the suspect into custody and discovered the fires were actually started in an unusual way. The individual’s truck was malfunctioning and kept backfiring. That caused a spark that then took off and turned into a destructive fire within minutes -- a situation that demonstrated just how dire the drought is in that part of Kansas.

And as the Adams worked to assess the losses caused by the fires on their ranch, just five days later, another fire started on their place.

“It was right over there in the middle of what burned last week. Fortunately, it was surrounded with farm ground, and what did border us was some hay that caught fire just 100 yards from our fence in some country that already been burned, but it sure enough makes you panic,” Adams says.

Trapped by Raging Wildfires in December, Kansas Ranchers Share Staggering Story of Survival

While thankful the majority of their herd survived both fires, the fact that the two fires finished off the already drought-stricken grazing ground is now weighing on their minds. 

“We stock conservatively so I felt OK, but losing 5,000 acres of grass.... I’ve already bought some hay and am trying to find ways that I can supplement these cattle, but if we don't have some rain in the forecasts, I’m going to be faced with having to sell some cows,” he says.

The talk of liquidation is a tough decision and one ranchers across the West are plagued with this year.  According to Drovers, liquidation is already starting with the industry on track to reduce the nation’s cowherd to close to 2014 levels, which was the smallest herd since 1952.

With nearly 80 percent of the nation’s cattle herd seeing some level of drought, it’s liquidation that’s expected to continue if rains don’t drench the Plains in the coming weeks.

“As we get through May and into June and July, we will see a lot of ranchers forced to make some very, very painful decisions as a result of the situation we're in,” says Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University livestock specialist.

From wildfires to lack of feed, Peel says widespread drought is the culprit for what he sees as accelerated herd liquidation. 

“A spring drought is absolutely a worst-case scenario, because we come out of winter, we've used up most if not all of our hay, we don't get any spring growth, we go immediately into severe decision-making,” explains Peel. “It's not like a drought we sort of see building over a summer, and we can kind of plan and work our way through it. This one's just here all of a sudden.”

Drovers Cover Story -  Counting Cows: Drought, Costs Will Drive Further Reductions

Peel says the situation is severe enough that moisture is an immediate need.  Peel thinks if rain doesn’t come to fruition within the next two to three weeks, cattle producers could experience  a repeat of 2011. 

“There are a couple of similarities and a couple of differences to that year,” says Peel. “The drought conditions right now in terms of time of year, and the potential impacts, are similar to 2011. The difference is that one was very severe but very localized in the Southern Plains. It was a big area, but still the Southern Plains. This year, we have much more widespread drought conditions.”

The scenario is setting up a last-resort situation, with cattle producers faced with making difficult decisions over the next eight to 10 weeks.

“Looking at a Q1 of next year and Q2 of next year, those prices are not encouraging any production expansion at all,” says John Payne, with Stone X Group, as well as publisher of “This Week in Grain.” “In fact, you might see cowboys go out of business.”

Feed costs are high, and while cattle prices have improved, prices on the CME haven’t risen at the same rate as grains or other livestock markets.

John Nalivka of Sterling Marketing says beef cow slaughter is racing higher, with year-to-date slaughter for the week ending March 26, 2022, up 16 percent compared to a year ago, which marks the highest in nearly 36 years. 

Even without the drought last year, Kansas State University economist Glynn Tonsor tells Drovers that  beef producers would likely have reduced their herds some this year.

“I think we would have shrunk the herd a little even without the drought magnifier, simply because of the price signals ranchers were seeing,” Tonsor says.



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