Cattle Ranchers Struggle to Survive Amid Wildfires

The wildfires in Texas and Oklahoma have hit cattle ranchers especially hard. Hay and pasture land were already at a premium due to a lengthy drought. Now, many ranchers are relying on the kindness of neighbors for grazing land — and some have given up and are planning to sell their herds. Scott Gurian of member station KGOU in Norman, Okla., reports.

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Strong winds, dry conditions and unseasonably warm temperatures have fueled hundreds of wild fires across Texas and Oklahoma over the past several weeks. Oklahoma officials estimate it's costing up to $100,000 a day to fight the fires. Forecasters predict that dry weather and fire danger in the region could continue into the Spring. That spells particular trouble for many farmers and ranchers. Their businesses are already suffering as a result of the drought.

Scott Gurian of member station KGOU reports.

SCOTT GURIAN (Reporter, KGOU): On the first sale day after the holidays at the Oklahoma City Stockyards an auctioneer barked out the highest bids as cattle were herded before a crowd of about 50 onlookers.

(Soundbite of auctioneer)

GURIAN: Rancher and cattle buyer, Darren Williams said this week was busier than most.

Mr. DARREN WILLIAMS (Rancher and Cattle Buyer, Oklahoma City): We've had some dispersals of, this sale right here of 500 cow, you know, operations just totally dispersing out all of their cows and their keds(ph) before they wanted to just because of fires and drought.

GURIAN: The first sale of the year is a time when auctioneers would usually expect to sell about 10 or 11,000 head of cattle. But this year, they sold more than 17,000 in a single day. Stockyards' president Rob Fisher says market prices are high so ranchers are making good money, but many were still hoping to wait until the spring.

Mr. ROB FISHER (President, Oklahoma City Stockyards): Most of the cattle are turned out on winter wheat to graze all winter, and they sell them in March and April. And because they haven't gotten the rain on the wheat pasture, the wheat pasture's pretty well gone right now, and that's why they're having to sell so many earlier than they normally do.

GURIAN: And much of the pastures that did exist are now charred by wildfires. Recent estimates suggest close to 650,000 acres have burned in the region since November. Ranchers began feeding their cattle hay instead, but Oklahoma Agricultures Secretary Terry Peach says that too is in short supply.

Mr. TERRY PEACH (Agriculture Secretary, Oklahoma): We actually had a pretty good spring as far as hay production, but as this drought continues and then as the tremendous fires over the entire state have not only burned up pastures that our ranchers have now, it's burned up much of our hay piles that farmers had stored for their winter hay needs for their cattle operation.

GURIAN: The Oklahoma Agriculture Department is promoting a special online directory and telephone hotline to match those who have hay with those who need it. So far the price of hay is constant, but for farmers who have lost their supplies, replacing it is going to be costly. Scott Bulling is crop insurance manager with the Oklahoma Farm Bureau.

Mr. SCOTT BULLING (Crop Insurance Manager, Oklahoma Farm Bureau): They may have their hay insured for, say, somewhere 20 dollars per round bale. Most likely that hay value is closer to 30 or 35 dollar per bale, so they've got a 10 to 15 dollar per bale shortfall, and they're having to turn around and use that to try to buy more hay.

GURIAN: The Oklahoma Farm Bureau says farmers and ranchers have filed half a million dollars in wildfire claims since November, and that figure will likely continue to rise. For the time being, the drought and fires have made things only slightly more difficult for many of the larger cattle operations. They've been able to absorb the extra costs of shipping in hay and sending their animals to feed lots, but for smaller farms and ranchers that experienced large fires, the situation is less optimistic. Many of them are hoping for increased federal and state assistance, relying in the meantime on the kindness of friends and neighbors to provide places for their cattle to graze. For NPR News, I'm Scott Gurian in Norman Oklahoma.

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