theadanews.com - Ada, Oklahoma

Local News

June 22, 2014

Drought worries ease locally; still a concern in a large swath of western Oklahoma

Ada — Driving down the road — windshield wipers slapping off rain and tires sliding around curves —could lead a skeptic to question drought conditions in this state.

 If you trust those who know, much of Oklahoma is in a drought. And there is no sure sign we're getting out of it anytime soon despite what's been falling out of the sky in recent weeks.

  Then again...

 Cautious optimism, for better or worse, has been spreading among farmers and ranchers, meteorologists  and those interested in all things agriculture in Oklahoma.

 One four-letter word — used both reverently and profanely —is on the lips of Pontotoc County residents a lot these days.

 Rain.

 With it, there is hope. Without it, there is, at best, management of dwindling resources among farmers and ranchers.

"More decent rains are expected over the next few days in Pontotoc County," said Oklahoma state climatologist Gary McManus. Pontotoc County's soil right now "is pretty good," he reported.

  The county as a whole is a mixed bag, ranging from non-drought in the east to severe drought in the west.

"All the improvements we've seen lately have been built on the recent rains," he said.

 The success of this year's agriculture depends partially on a continuation of rain through the normally dry months of July and August, he said.

 The rest of it, McManus and other experts say, depends on farmers and ranchers making good decisions with their land and livestock during what may still be less than desirable weather conditions.

 Pontotoc County rancher Rance Walker of Vanoss has managed to rebuild his cattle inventory to more than 200 cattle after the disastrous drought of 2011. That was the year he took a large truck into Missouri, stopping just 40 miles south of Kansas City.

 He filled the truck up with out-of-state hay to feed his livestock at a cost of thousands of dollars.

 "We're just now recovering from that," he said. Still, he managed to keep his cattle alive and healthy.

 "I really had no other choice," he said. "It was either that or lose what we had spent so many years building up," Walker said.

 Caution optimism sounds like this:

"Things have gotten better but if the rain stops now, we'll be right back where we were in a couple of weeks. You might say we're kind of living on the edge."

  Walker keeps a wary eye on available feed, the quality of feed, the amount of rain, and the quality and expense of hay.

 "If you have to buy feed for that many, it depletes your resources quickly," said Walker. "That's why I'm just praying for rain."

 Those prayers have apparently been answered in a positive way so far, but nothing is taken for granted.

"Taking care of the land isn't that different from taking care of any other tool in a business," said Chancey Hanson, director of communications for the Oklahoma Cattleman's Association in Oklahoma City,   

"Land is not money in the bank," she said. "It's like a truck to a truck driver or a building to a manufacturer. It's an asset, but it's not money."

Land that has been parched by weather conditions or overgrazed can destroy a rancher's livelihood. Ranchers must have plans in place for almost any contingency,  Chancey said.  

 The rancher may have to move his cattle, either to another field on his own land, or by leasing grazing land for a price from someone else.

 Overgrazing is a no-no. Most ranchers are careful to keep that from happening, no matter how serious the drought, Chancey said.

  Even the best management needs a compliment of luck. Right now, that may be happening for a lot of Oklahoma ranchers.

   The water supply at Tom Steed Lake in Kiowa County, which was down to 20 percent capacity less than a month ago, is now at 30 percent capacity, McManus said.

  Ideally, the Oklahoma drought index map would eventually turn a boring white. Right now, it's colorful but not particularly inviting.

 It's hard to find three different drought levels in a single county, but that's the story in Pontotoc County. How much drought any one place is in can almost depend on which side of the road a person lives on. In general, the drought grow worse as a motorist travels east to west in this county.

Overall, a large percentage of the western half of the state would seem to be far worse off than Pontotoc as far as drought conditions goes.

 Two of the categories, extreme drought and exceptional drought, can't be found in Pontotoc County.

 Regardless of what color the map shows a region, most of the state is much better off than a month ago, said McManus, who supplies the Oklahoma data for the Oklahoma Climatological  Survey, which is used to produce the drought maps each week.

 His one big concern are the counties along the Red River near the Oklahoma-Texas line. While the rest of the state has had between six and eight inches of rain, this area has had just two-to-three inches. That could cause problems later in the summer.

  Chad Letellier, the Emergency Management Director for Pontotoc County, says he hasn't seen area ranchers selling off their livestock or getting out of the business. But he does see the current situation as cause for concern.

 "If it stops raining, we're right back where we were," he said. "I think that's still a pretty big deal."

 The root structure for crops right now is shallow. Letellier knows more rain is needed to deepen the roots.

 He's hoping the area will have its second-straight, better-than-usual July. "That helped us have a pretty good hay crop last year," he said.

  Chancey said her family has been suffering in the northwestern part of the state near Alva and Woodward the last few years.

 She's grown up seeing the ups and downs of the business. Fortunately, the Woodward-Alva area has been blanketed with about seven inches of rain the past two weeks.

 "That's the most we've had in a year," she said. "Obviously, our ground looks like paradise compared to a few weeks ago. You can finally see green pastures again."

  She knows her family and other Oklahoma families are far from being out of drought. She also knows that the cattle inventory in the U.S., despite high prices for beef, is at it's lowest point in 60 years.

 According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 2014 inventory for cattle is 87.7 million head. That's the lowest number of cattle since 1951 — another bad drought period for Texas and Oklahoma that hung on through 1956— when 82.1 million head were counted.

"Producers are a little skeptical right now about buying cattle to extend or to regrow their herds,"  Hanson said. "It would be nice if we knew the weather. It's just not the case."

Without that knowledge, hard facts have to be faced in a timely manner.

  "You can't make generalities," Hanson said. "If there's no green grass growing, you either have to buy feed or cattle cubes. Either do that, or downsize your herd."

 Tough but well thought-out decisions, she said, are part of the business in any year.

 Hanson said a neighbor in northwest Oklahoma paid a trucker to take his cattle to another state where the grass was plentiful. When conditions improved, the rancher had his cattle driven back, as if they'd been on a vacation.

  That was an expensive vacation but it saved his herd.

 "You've got to make adjustments. You've got to manage your resources," she said. "You have to decide if you want more cattle to feed, or if you want to sell a few and then get by on less feed."

  "If cattle aren't gaining, important decisions have to be made," she said.

 For now, at least, there is cautious hope on Oklahoma farms and ranches.

 

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