After three years of cold, dry winters, farmers in Payne County are bracing for another tough year.
Norman Durham owns Durham Ranch, near Lake Carl Blackwell, a 640-acre plot where he has raised cattle for 30 years. This winter was one of the most severe he has seen, he said.
“The rainfall has been way below average,” he said.
Durham had to go to extra lengths to keep his farm in shape and cattle from dying in harsh environments.
This isn’t the first year the weather has affected farming conditions.
The drought impact started being evident in 2011. From fall 2010 to the end of 2011, Oklahoma’s agricultural industry lost about $1 billion. U.S. corn exports were the lowest they had been since 1970, at 715 million bushels, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center data.
The drought hit Oklahoma and most of the nation with full force.
But it didn’t stop there. The Midwest and Plains regions of the nation were estimated to have lost $35 billion in 2012, according to the NDMC data.
From 2011 to 2012, ranchers in Oklahoma sold nearly 20 percent of their cattle because of low feed and water supply.
At the end of 2013, 71 percent of Oklahoma was categorized as at least “abnormally dry.”
The combination of three cold, dry winters create worse than “abnormal” circumstances for farmers, said Gail Holland, USDA county executive director.
“You can’t just isolate the fall of 2013 for the drought, because it just builds one on top of the other,” she said.
Durham sold about 25 percent of his cattle during this drought period.
“We sell off some so the others will have plenty to eat,” he said.
For winters like this, ranchers like Durham have also faced challenges getting water to the cattle.
“Our ponds froze solid, so we had to resort on electrical heaters when and where we could,” Durham said. “For those people that don’t (have electrical heaters), you just buy a new axe and start chopping ice, and we have done that in the past.”
Durham and his wife, Jane, have used axes to cut holes into ponds so the cattle can get to the water. In severe weather, he has to do it up to three times a day, he said.
Durham has not lost any cattle this winter, in part because he has water-heaters he can place in tubs of water near the barn when ponds freeze to make water available to his 50 cows, he said.
Drought conditions caused beef prices to be $4.92 per pound on average from January 2013 to October 2013, 5.3 percent higher than the same time in 2012, according to NDMC data.
The consistently harsh winter conditions may increase prices again, and creates hazardous conditions for the cattle that ranchers do keep, said Kim Ehlars, the soil conservationist at the USDA.
In 2011 to 2012, ponds became so low in the summer that cattle waded in mud to get a drink. Sometimes, cattle would get belly-deep in mud and get stuck, Ehlars said.
In the winter, cattle wade into ponds that are partially frozen to get to water, fall through the ice and can drown if farmers have not broken up the ice, he said.
“People lost, you know, a $1000 cow,” Ehlars said. “You lose cows when it’s cold, and you lose cows when it’s dry.”
As the spring approaches, cows are beginning to prepare for birth. If calves are born during a night that’s too cold, there’s a chance they won’t make it, Ehlars said.
Durham began seeing calving on his farm when a cow born Saturday night. When the weather is cold, his biggest concern is new mothers that do not know exactly what to do, he said.
“I try to have them up close; this is their first baby,” he said. “Sometimes a new mother is not exactly sure what she needs to do.”
Generally, after cows have a calf, mothers are supposed to start licking on a calf to dry it off, he said. When they get calf dried, it is important that it gets nursed immediately. On cold nights, Durham checks on the mothers to make sure the calf gets dried because the liquids can freeze quickly on the calf. Then, he can assist the new mothers with nursing if needed, to help the calf warm up, he said.
“The goal is to get them up and get them to nurse,” he said. “If that baby gets up and nurses and gets a full belly of milk, then nature’s awfully good to them.”
Beef isn’t the only commodity with potentially rising prices. The wheat beginning to develop isn’t looking promising. Wheat is usually planted as early as August and as late as December.
“The reason wheat is starting to show stress is from lack of moisture; the wheat is starting to suffer,” Ehlars said.
Durham usually bales his own hay, but with little rain, he produces much less grass. Last year, he had to purchase hay bales from other parts of the state, and with transportation, the bales cost about $97 each, he said. Cows each eat around 30 to 40 pounds of hay a day, and hay bales he purchased were around 1,200 pounds. As the prices increase to feed the cattle, the price of beef does also.
Although it snowed a few times this winter, it did not create enough moisture to maintain crops like grass and wheat.
One foot of snow is equal to one inch of rain, said Anita Kaufman, district manager of Payne County Conservation District. So far this winter, we have received less than one inch of rain, she said.
“There’s a big misconception that just because there has been snow and ice that there’s been an adequate amount of moisture, but there hasn’t,” Kaufman said. “It was a really dry snow.”
Out of the past three winters, this one has been “colder and drier,” she said. Right now, Payne County and surrounding areas are not in “a bad situation yet,” but if this weather continues, producers are worried, Kaufman said.
Durham is waiting for the spring, which may bring some much needed rain.
“Water is important, and in periods of drought, there’s not much you can do to control it, so we just kind of try to make the best of it,” Durham said.