Ranchers Weigh Government's Role in a Crisis

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Howard Hardeke runs about 80 heads of cattle on his ranch.

Howard Hardeke runs about 80 heads of cattle on his ranch. Andrea Seabrook, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Seabrook, NPR

Andrea Seabrook visits cattle ranchers in Missouri coping with the mid-summer drought. These ranchers tend to resent federal government intrusion into their business, but they know they need its help now.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

This month, NPR reporters have been crossing the country, talking to Americans about their relationship with the government. You can follow their trail at npr.org. Today, NPR's Andrea Seabrook is in Missouri, where she spoke with cattle ranchers about the government's influence on their business.


Driving northwest from Tennessee, the land slowly changes from hot Southern corn and soybean fields to the open rolling grasslands of Missouri. This is cattle country. The soil is too poor to support crop farming, and so the countryside is dotted with grazing cows, tan and black and red.

(Soundbite of cows mooing)

Mr. HOWARD HARDECKE (Cattle Rancher): Hi, girls. How you doing, girls?

SEABROOK: Howard Hardecke runs about 80 head of cattle on his ranch. The young calves stick close to their mothers as we approach.

Mr. HARDECKE: OK. These are what I call my spring-calving cows. These cows all had calves...

(Soundbite of cow mooing)

Mr. HARDECKE: ...early this spring. They were born from about the middle of February up to...

(Soundbite of cow mooing)

Mr. HARDECKE: ...probably the end of April.

SEABROOK: Hardecke runs a commercial cow-calf operation. He breeds cows and bulls, births the calves and later weans them and sells them on to another rancher who specializes in feeding and growing the young cattle.

When I look out across Hardecke's pastures, I see beautiful golden fields. When he looks, he sees dried brown scrub.

Mr. HARDECKE: This is what you get when you have a drought. You know, the grass has all turned brown, and it doesn't have near the feed value it would have if it was green. Now to be honest with you, in Missouri in August most years our grass will eventually get to this point. But it's just a little more severe this year and it came a lot earlier.

SEABROOK: The drought here is hitting Missouri ranchers hard. They'll have to start buying and trucking in hay to feed their cattle, and some, Hardecke says, will have to sell off land or cows to pay for it. So Hardecke and the Missouri Cattlemen's Association have been meeting with members of Congress on the agriculture committees, pleading for some drought assistance money. Then again, says Hardecke, cattlemen by and large would rather the government stay out of their business. They watch Washington with a wary eye, especially when it comes to regulation of beef and grain prices and other parts of the industry.

Mr. HARDECKE: Most cattlemen like the idea of being very independent, but we also know that we are subject to nature, and sometime nature throws us big curves.

SEABROOK: Like anyone else in America, Hardecke says ranchers sometimes need a little government help to get through a crisis.

(Soundbite of livestock show)

SEABROOK: Down in Springfield, it's time for the livestock show at the Ozark Empire Fair. Long, low open barns are full of chickens, pigs, goats and of course, cattle. Powerful fans keep the animals comfortable on this dry, hot morning, and a big section of one barn is dedicated to beefalo, part buffalo, part beef cattle. John Fowler of La Monte, Missouri, pulls his trucker's hat down against the glare and says it's great being a beefalo rancher. Yes, they have many of the same problems as other cattlemen, but he says beefalo are better.

Mr. JOHN FOWLER (Beefalo Rancher): The animals will yield a higher percentage of usable meat from a carcass. They will forage more efficiently, meaning they'll--given the same amount of roughage, they will create more lean red meat from it.

SEABROOK: And, Fowler says, unlike cows, beefalo sweat, so they can withstand hotter days, like today. But even with these assets, beefalo ranchers still have to deal with the government, and that's not fun, says Vernon Zelch of Bourbon, Missouri. He particularly resents an Agriculture Department initiative called the Conservation Reserve Program. It pays grain farmers about $35 an acre not to farm. That holds down soil erosion and keeps grain prices high, but, Zelch says, that also keep land grazing prices high.

Mr. VERNON ZELCH (Beefalo Rancher): If John, here, who's also in grain country, if the government's willing to pay him $35 an acre not to produce, but I would like to rent his farm but I can--as a cattleman, can only pay, say $27, $28 an acre, John's going to take the government money. But his money, from the government is my tax dollars. I'm competing against my own money.

SEABROOK: Zelch says the government shouldn't be in this business at all.

Mr. ZELCH: Let the farmer produce what he wants to produce, how, what levels, wherever, and get the government out.

SEABROOK: Still, Zelch and other cattlemen are glad to have tax breaks to buy farm equipment and they would like that drought assistance money. And so Missouri ranchers find that whether good or bad, as they say, the government is all mixed up in their business. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.

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