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Drought Edges into Southern Plains and Midwest

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The phone rang while I was sitting in Mark Harmon’s office at the Joplin Regional Stockyards.  A rancher in Texas needed alfalfa bales and was asking if anyone in Missouri might have some. Harmon and Sara Engler of the Stockyards office found the caller a source for some hay.  Drought conditions that had already hit Texas and Oklahoma ranchers seemed to be creeping closer to the Four-State area, with early August temperatures well over 100 degrees and no significant rain since late May.

Hay for Cattle
at Stockyard Pasture
Mark Harmon and Sara Engler
Joplin Regional Stockyards

“I just don’t see anybody panicking,” replied Harmon when I asked him about the drought.  Yet one of the nation’s largest stockyards had already decided to forgo a cow sale this summer because of concerns that buyers wouldn’t be able to take new stock home and properly care for it.  “Most people ain’t got enough to feed the cows they got,” he explained.  Last year, the stockyards dealt in more than 400-thousand head of cattle.  Ranchers within a 150-mile radius, many with small family farms, buy and sell at this agricultural hub. Harmon was sure to say that farmers were not drastically selling off cattle the way they had been in Oklahoma City.  Even the large grassy lots behind the stockyard building were beginning to look dry.

Just 50 miles southwest of Joplin, in Delaware County, Oklahoma, pampered cattle were grazing on hay in a parched field that should still be green this time of year. I asked Oklahoma State University Agricultural Extension Educator Ryan Sproul how farmers and ranchers are getting by.  Sproul said, “We’re just starting to feed our hay a little sooner than what we’d like to. Hopefully everybody’s got enough hay put up that we can make it through.” Sproul says the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture provides a resource for ranchers who need to locate more hay.  No doubt the conditions will affect ranchers’ bottom line.  Sproul shares that this summer’s local hay production is only at half to three-quarters of what farmers can usually reap.

Delaware County, Oklahoma

By the second week of August some rain brought temporary relief to the Four-State region, lowering temperatures significantly. Yet, it still may not be enough.  Chief Meteorologist Ray Foreman of KODE-TV said about the situation for Northeast Oklahoma, “It’s extreme drought.  It’s gonna take more than an inch of rain…maybe by week’s end.”  Sproul said of the small amounts of rain, “It’s kind of a band-aid to the problem we’re having right now.”

Harmon noted that ranchers properly managing pastures, within reasonable weather conditions, should be able to keep cattle grazing now while they stockpile hay for the winter.  He helps the Joplin Regional Stockyards publish the Cattlemens News, which offers education on cattle health, farming efficiency and the latest farming news.  He was careful to maintain a sense of optimism that the market would remain fairly stable.  Harmon also noted that the few full-time small farmers remaining in business are some of the most frugal people of all — resourceful enough to outlast a drought. Sproul said enough moisture and cooler temperatures to plant cool-season fescue fields in September should help ranchers overcome the problem.  “We can hopefully be grazing by October or November,” Sproul detailed.

Load of Hay near Oklahoma/Arkansas Line

The nation’s Drought Monitor offers this website with a map that outlines how drought conditions are currently affecting the Southern Plains and some of the Midwest.  How does the drought affect consumers at the store?  Sproul tells it like it is, “You may see some food prices increase and it may be down the road and even next year.”  He reminds us that we can’t blame family farmers for the price increases, because they only get a small portion of what we pay at the store, after all of their hard work.

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