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SPOTLIGHT
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Are we in the midst of the worst ever?

Published on -7/24/2013, 10:09 AM

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Hundred-degree days coupled with 30- to 40-mph winds and little moisture spells crop and pastureland failure for western Kansas. It's like putting the corn and grass in a giant outdoor oven and turning a fan on.

Forty-year-old Ben McClure of Stevens County says the extended drought that began during the summer of 2010 may be the worst drought ever in southwestern Kansas -- and that includes the infamous droughts of the Dirty Thirties and 1950s.

Although McClure didn't experience those two droughts some veteran farmers and stockmen did. They've told him this drought may be the worst ever. He's looking at three consecutive years of failed dry-land crops.

His irrigation crop yields fell by as much as 30 percent in 2011.

While the Stevens County farmer believes he's fortunate to have the availability of flex accounts, he's worried about using up his pumping allotment in two or three years and no more water to irrigate with if the drought continues.

"It's bad," McClure says. "Since the drought started during the summer of 2010, we've received less than 17 inches of rain and no measurable snow."

Average rainfall for Stevens County is 17 inches annually. McClure's land received no precipitation of any kind during a recent 13-month period.

The hardest part of such a drought, McClure says, is putting effort into growing a crop and watching it die. His family has farmed the Kansas soil for five generations.

"I believe you don't farm as a chosen career," he says. "It's a career that chooses you."

Watching the precious top soil blow during this three-year drought is especially painful. At this point there's little a farmer can do to stop erosion.

"You can pull a shovel or a blade through the soil that's bone dry a foot deep; all you'll be doing is turning over dry dirt," McClure says. "Because we haven't really grown any crops for three years now, there's little residue left to hold the soil in place either."

Last winter, the Stevens County farmer watched the soil blow down to the hardpan (a layer of soil so compacted that neither plant roots nor water can penetrate). That's gut-wrenching. It leaves a scar on a farmer and the land.

McClure says the wind has blown crop residue drifts four and five feet deep on his family's driveway. Last winter, corn stalks blew into his yard, drifting around his farm equipment like snow.

Strong southerly winds also uncovered fence rows he's never seen before -- probably relics from the '50s or even the '30s Dust Bowl days.

The livestock situation is dire in Stevens County as well. McClure pulled his cow herd off pastures early in 2011 and placed them in a dry lot in 2012. He's reduced his cow herd by one-third.

Many of his neighbors have sold their entire herds.

"Some neighbors tell me they'll buy cows again, but I wonder if they'll be able to because they don't want to go through another heartache of losing something they spent a lifetime building," he says.

McClure is trying everything he can to keep his cow herd. He's grazing irrigation corners and grass he labels "wasted" just to put roughage in his cattle.

"We flashed across the pastures for a week when a little shower moved through earlier this summer," he says. "The pigweeds, kochia and thistles all came up but now we're back to feeding hay."

To cope with the three-year drought, McClure has changed his practices. He's reduced corn acres and replaced some with wheat. He's shifted to 500 acres of cotton.

Like other producers in the region, he's looking to grow more drought and heat tolerant crops. He'll plant mostly milo on his irrigated land next year instead of corn.

"It's been a tough few years," McClure says. "I hope I can persevere and my kids can see me be successful.

"At times I've been paid well for what I do," the Stevens County farmer/stockman reflects. "Other times I've done it for free and at times I've paid dearly. But I love farming and I wouldn't change it."

Hoxie native John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas who writes for the Kansas Farm Bureau.

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