Farmers losing hope as fourth year of drought takes its toll
Ranchers are the suckler farmers of the US system. They're the guys with cows calving, and letting cows graze grass during the summer months. The calves are sold in the autumn to 'back-grounders' or 'stockers' who bring them on to the point where they are ready for a feedlot.
But ranchers have also benefited from the increase in maize acreage by using the stubbles as a dry out-wintering pads for cattle to scavenge left-over cobs and stems.
"It costs me about $1/cow/day to out-winter my stock. That's risen fourfold in three years, but it still represents value to me," said rancher Trent Loos.
"I'll get about 30 days on a 160ac block for my 100 cow herd, whereas to do the same on hay, I'd be paying $3/cow/day. You might need to provide your own fencing and a little bit of protein supplementation, but provided those stalks don't get covered up with snow, cows can get fat out there. It's amazing how much feeding there is out there," he added.
Often cows will have exhausted maize stubbles by February, at which stage ranchers like Trent begin to take them back to a homestead dry-lot for the duration of calving. They'll be fed hay, and maybe some grain until turnout on pasture, which varies depending on how northerly you are in the country.
"I'll turn out by May 15, but that might be May 1 in Missouri, and June 1 in North Dakota. We often get a hard freeze in April," explains Loos.
He is only able to stock a tenth of a cow per acre following a number of the driest years in living memory in many US states. "We've culled our numbers by two thirds over the last few years because there just wasn't the feeding capacity on our land. The same has happened across the US, which is why the herd is at its lowest level since 1951," he said.
"We're expecting rain here in the coming months, and we did get some relief last year. But if you go further west of here beyond the Rocky Mountains, farmers are heading into their fourth year of drought, and it's very severe. Those people are really beginning to lose hope and it's a dire situation because whole communities are running out of water. There's a lot of prayer going on in those places."
Do locals worry about the effects of climate change?
"Climate change has nothing to do with this because climate change has always happened here and all over the world. Man's influence on climate continues to be a huge political battle. The farmers believe that these cycles are normal. We're also getting better at managing it. For example, in the 'Dirty 1930s' when families and lives were destroyed by extreme drought and temperatures.
"But since 2000, the Great Plains of America have had even less measurable precipitation than those years in the 1930s. But it hasn't wreaked the same environmental devastation because farmers have learned how to better manage that resource. We're still raising record crops," says Trent.
The upside of the massive cull in the beef herd has been a doubling of prices for stock at every level in the chain over the last 2-3 years. Cattle were making $1.60/lb in the factories when I was there in February.
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