Drought taking toll
By MIKE CORN
Like heat waves rising in the blistering sun, bright red fingers representing an extreme drought now snake through the western third of the state.
More than two-thirds of Kansas is in the midst of a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, based in Lincoln, Neb.
Save for the extreme drought regions, it likely understates conditions -- in some cases significantly so -- in portions of northwest Kansas.
Already, fall crops and fledgling feed crops in the ground for feeding cattle this winter are struggling, if not already dying.
La Crosse Livestock owner Frank Seidel is planning four full days of cattle sales in July -- twice as many as normal -- to handle the crush of cattle he expects to go through his sale barn.
"We're going to go every week in July," he said of Friday sale days there. "While we'd usually go every other week."
In an ironic twist of fate, some of the cattle he is brokering will be heading to Texas, ground zero for the drought last year, but receiving enough rain in the winter months to let cattlemen start restocking herds.
In Kansas, cattle are running out of grass.
"We're selling cows because we don't have any grass," said Chase Rogers, standing in a wheat stubble field after loading 40 round bales of straw onto a truck driven by Kelly Petz.
The straw went to Lane County Feeders, where it will be mixed into the ration for cattle there.
Petz said he too could be selling cattle if it doesn't rain soon.
"I put them in in May," Petz said of moving cattle into a pasture west of Hays. "And I'm about out of grass now. I've got 15 days of grass left.
"If we don't get rain in the next 15 days, I'll have to sell cows. You can't afford to feed them summer and winter."
On Friday, the Kansas Farm Service Agency announced it would allow emergency grazing of Conservation Reserve Program grass in Ellis, Graham, Trego, Osborne, Rooks and Wallace counties.
"This authorization provides relief for many Kansas livestock producers who have suffered through severe drought conditions," said FSA's Adrian Polansky. "The drought has depleted hay supplies and affected the growth of hay and pasture in parts of Kansas. Many livestock producers cannot maintain their current herds without implementation of CRP emergency grazing."
Grazing is allowed through Sept. 30, and at least 25 percent of each field must be left ungrazed for wildlife. Farmers will lose 25 percent of their annual payments.
Golden Prairie Extension agent Scott "Bronc" Barrows is hoping CRP will offer some help, as will ammoniated bales of wheat straw. The problem there, he said, is it can't be used for cow-calf pairs, meaning farmers will have to wean calves before using it.
And any further reductions in the Trego and Gove area will cut deep, coming on top of what was reduced last year.
"It's not going to be a herd reduction," he said, "it's going to be a herd liquidation."
Grass isn't the only issue. There's also the need for water, especially during the sweltering temperatures lately.
Rogers said they have about 700 acres of grass south of Ellis, and out of seven ponds on the place, there's water in only one.
Seidel, at the La Crosse sale barn, is hearing about the lack of grass on an almost daily basis.
He's also reminding cattlemen to keep excess feed or hay around in case of drought.
"That's pretty cheap insurance laying out there behind the house or shed," he said.
There was a rush last year by many to take advantage of high feed prices because of the drought in Texas and Oklahoma.
Some of that was wheat straw baled up. Prices remain strong, going for about $70 a ton.
"For straw, that's a real good price," Rogers said.
It's the second year he's been baling straw. With a couple hundred bales already on hand and plans to keep another hundred, it will be mixed with alfalfa and baled hay to feed.
"Just for a filler," he said.
He's got some hay and alfalfa left over from last year, and feed already in the ground.
"We've got some down here," Rogers said of the planted feed, pointing off in the distance, "and it's starting to burn up."