Oklahoma cattle ranchers pray for rain

Fourteen US states are suffering from extreme drought, and livestock are paying the price.

By Alessandro Rampietti

Extreme heat and drought are spreading across 14 states in the US. From Arizona all the way to Florida, it’s as if the entire South of the country were burning from below, adding pressure to states and towns already struggling to recover from the financial crisis and high unemployment.

We just traveled to Oklahoma, where 40 per cent of the State is under exceptional drought. The pain began in October of 2010 and experts expect it to worsen.

Farmers and cattle ranchers are suffering the most in a state that has been hit hard in the past by exceptional waves of dry weather. Most famously in the 1930s, during the so called Dust Bowl, massive dust storms drove 2.5 million people out of America’s Plains states looking for relief out West.

Ted Tripp was a young Oklahoman boy during the Dust Bowl but says he’s never seen the small lake behind his house empty. “I came here when I was six or seven years old – he says – I’m now 88 and this is the first time that it’s been dry.”

Tripp is a hay farmer and normally this time of the year he would be bailing hay and hosting 800 on his farm placidly grazing. But now the earth is full of cracks and his crop is scorched. The roots of the grass are so weak that most of it died. “The land is all brown and dry,” Tripp says. “You think you are stepping on toothpicks.”

With their watering holes and pasture lands bone-dry, cattle ranchers across Oklahoma and Texas are running out of options trying to feed their animals.

Some of them, like Paul Worley, a cattle rancher for 32 years, have been forced to sell off entire herds of cattle because it’s so hard to feed them.

At the local cattle auction in Comanche, there is a steady increase in the number of cattle coming through the gates over the last few months. The night we were there, over 2,000 cows and bulls were sold in a grueling session that started at 10am and ended 16 hours later at 2am! All of Paul Worley’s 349 cattle were sold there. All, except one, because of a broken leg.

Many buyers come from the north of the state, less affected by the drought and happy to buy the cattle at bargain prices.

It is difficult at this point to calculate the economic losses due to the drought. But the US Department of Agriculture already estimates that it will run into the billions of dollars.

Dozens of counties have been designated natural disaster areas and will get some form of federal help.

Important crops like corn and wheat will be lost, potentially resulting in higher prices globally.

The forecast seems dire. With no relief on the horizon, the governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, has asked Oklahomans to set aside a little time on Sunday to pray for rain from a higher power.