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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

In drought-hit Kansas, desperation is the only thing growing

BY BECCY TANNER
The Wichita Eagle

ELKHART — Mary Coen apologizes for her dusty house.

She tells a visitor not to look at the windowsill in her farmhouse living room where a layer of dust has settled from the last burst of wind.

“The Good Lord hasn’t let it rain,” she says.

This summer, it doesn’t take much for the wind to kick up sand in western Kansas.

A 10 to 15 mph wind will cause the horizon to dim; at 30 to 40 mph, it darkens the sky and visibility is less than a 100 feet.

Much of Morton County is in an exceptional drought, the driest rating, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Already it is drier than the driest years of the Dust Bowl.

Since last September — 10 months ago — Morton County near Elkhart has received 2.99 inches of moisture. The normal average rainfall for that corner of Kansas is about 19 inches.

There was no dryland wheat harvested in the county this year; more than three-quarters of the county’s acres are dryland.

Farmers are selling cow-calf operations in record numbers because there is not enough feed. Newborn calves, less than a day old, are on the auction block.

Roads have been closed due to drifting sand, blocking access to gas and oil wells and causing some companies to shut the wells down temporarily.

Spring crops that are planted — corn, grain sorghum and soybeans — are done so on irrigated lands, or in the hope of collecting crop insurance.

It is so dry many western counties have banned fireworks for fear they could set off massive grass fires.

“I’d describe this drought as very bleak,” said Morton County agricultural extension agent Tim Jones. “You can’t do anything. It is hot, dry and windy. We are at a complete standstill.

“You can’t do anything agriculturally unless you have water. The irrigated people are trying to make it work that way. But all the dryland crops and cattle are barely hanging on.

“Until it rains, there just won’t be anything happening.”

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a drought disaster declaration for 49 Kansas counties, nearly half the state.

The drought is so severe, it even caused the Kansas Legislature to ease some of the restrictions on western Kansas irrigators, acknowledging the drought is quickly eating up their yearly water allotments.

On Thursday, the Kansas Department of Agriculture Division of Water Resources (DWR) announced it would allow water right holders alternatives for additional pumping this year due to the ongoing drought.

“It’s bad,” said Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Dale Rodman.

“The sad thing is we’ve got water running out of our ears on the east side of the state,” he said, referring to flooding in some parts of eastern Kansas. “It is an ironic situation in a very weird year.”

Drought’s impact

Travel west across the state this summer and it is easy to see the drought’s impact.

Sedgwick County, which last month received nearly 5 inches of rain in parts of the county, is almost lush in comparison to, say, Reno County, which, in one area along U.S. 50 near Sylvia, has blowing sand in the ditches.

Quivira National Wildlife Refuge’s Big Salt Marsh in Stafford County is dry and cracked. It smells of death from hundreds of rotting fish.

West of Kinsley, the semblance of occasional green on the horizon gives way to dormant brown. Dust devils skirt dusty fields where rows of corn struggle to grow.

A large grass fire fed by winds in early April wiped out more than a dozen square miles west of Satanta and forced a temporary evacuation of the town. The remaining land now has an arid desert appearance.

In Morton County, the landscape is grim.

And it is here, the Coen family — four generations — has eked out a living from the land. This year, though, may be their last, says 41-year old Troy Coen.

“It is not our fault. It is not the bank’s,’’ he said. “But it all comes to a head this year.”

And it all hinges on rain.

Wind, fire and dust

Drought is nothing new to farmers in southwest Kansas.

During the 1920s, when rains came frequently and tractors were still relatively new, the prairie was turned into huge oceans of golden, waving wheat.

By the 1930s, when drought and wind set in, Morton County was the most devastated county of the Dust Bowl years.

Congress bought up some of the land from the county’s bankrupt farmers and, by 1960, the U.S. Forest Service was managing 108,175 acres of the Cimarron National Grasslands.

It is an area 30 miles long and 10 miles wide of shortgrass and sandsage prairie. It is dedicated to water conservation, wildlife management and cattle grazing.

Joe Hartman, a Cimarron Grassland District ranger who retired this past week, says he’s never seen a year quite like this one.

Some old-timers are comparing it to the droughts in the early 1950s, when large numbers of cow-calf operations were sold because there simply wasn’t the grass and feed to get through the year.

“I have never seen it on this large of a scale,’’ he said. “We’ve seen three major droughts in the last 10 years. This has been more of a continual drought.”

It’s been a decade of dry years, including three exceptionally dry years in a bad economy.

The dryness has had disastrous consequences for the grasslands.

Shortly after 8:30 a.m. on Mother’s Day — May 8 — a fire swept through the heart of the grasslands and neighboring land, wiping out 17,000 acres of prairie and cropland. It was fueled by 40 mph winds, gusting to 70 mph.

Although fire departments were called in from every surrounding county and state, “We weren’t able to stop it with ground equipment,” Hartman said.

Sparks from the fire would jump and fly over roads and windbreaks.

“We had to call in an air tanker. It came out of Arizona and took most of the day to fly up here and get loaded with retardant,” he said.

The fire exposed the sand and a month filled with 30 to 40 mph windy days have blown nearly 20 miles of roads shut. That has caused companies to shut down some oil and gas wells in the area because they can no longer get to the wells. Drifting dunes have spilled across fences and cattle guards.

“The biggest fear is that if we don’t get rain, it will just keep blowing,” Hartman said.

Already, blowing sand is drifting over plants. And what plant life is visible, the roots lie exposed to the winds, the sand cutting the roots.

In some areas, the farmland has been so scoured by the wind, it is down to hard crust.

Crops and cattle

Jones, the Morton County agricultural extension agent, grows somber when he talks about any future farming this year in his home county.

Some parts of Kansas have received more rain in a single night then huge tracts of Morton County has seen since fall.

“This time a year ago, we had a lot of moisture through the winter, but then it just turned off,” Jones said. “It stopped and it hasn’t started up again.

“We are so dry that whatever moisture we do get, it either absorbs pretty quickly or the next day we will get those 100 degree temperatures with the wind blowing at 30 to 40 mph and it’s gone.”

The farmers with irrigated wheat have already used up a quarter to a half of their water allotments, Jones said.

“Most people thought it was going to rain last fall, and it just didn’t,” Jones said.

“People didn’t water as much if they had irrigated ground. They put it off and put it off. And then, in February, when we got some warm weather, they turned the pumps on. And then they irrigated just about any day they could get water on it.”

Some of the irrigated fields yielded between 20 to 40 bushels to the acre, but “90 percent of the wheat crop has been written off; we will probably go higher,” Jones said.

Most of the livestock in the area is gone, he said.

“We’ve had folks cut their herds in half and have given themselves a timetable. In two weeks if we don’t have rain, they will sell so many. And, in another two weeks, they will sell so many more.

“And we’ve had other people realize their cow-calf operation isn’t going to work, and they have sold them.”

Brian Winter, manager of the Winter Livestock Auction in Dodge City — America’s largest independent cattle auction company and one of the nation’s oldest — said he also has never seen a year like this one.

“Normally, we’d sell 4,500 cattle in Dodge during the whole month; we’ll have 3,500 cows just this week,” Winter said.

“It is hard for people in Topeka, Wichita and even Salina to imagine because they have all had an abundance of rain. But we are not that far away — we are all Kansans and we are getting hurt out here.”

It has helped that some portions of the Conservation Reserve Program land has been released for grazing — but that’s only had a Band-Aid affect, Winter said.

“Ultimately, we have to have moisture. We can’t catch any kind of break,” he said.

The hardest hit areas of the drought cover not only the southwestern parts of Kansas but the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle, New Mexico and Colorado. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows 48 percent of Oklahoma in severe drought; Texas is at 63 percent.

“It’s scary how large of an area this is,” said Larry Steckline, a longtime farmer who owns the Mid-America Ag Network. “We need rain, bad and quick.

“This is going to change the cycle of the cattle feeding business. There won’t be near the number of cattle come off grass for feedlot use. It could affect the dinner table if the numbers of cattle don’t go to feed.”

As each of the individual farmers and ranchers sell off cattle, more and more newborn calves are being sold. Since April, beef cow slaughter rates from Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas are up 125 percent, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“Normally, we might have five to 10 calves in our Dodge City market per week at this time of the year,” Winter said. “Now, it’s 200 to 400 a week.”

Large herds, some that took three and four generations of farm families to create, are being sold and “when they sell the cow they were going to keep, that’s when it is all over.”

“This is affecting people’s lives — that’s the deal,” Winter said. “It’s uncontrollable. That’s what scares people.”

Finding water

The farther west you go, the more critical water becomes.

Irrigated land, fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, the sole source of water for much of western Kansas, is in demand.

“It is all fossil water out there. It is stored water from glacial runoffs,” said James Sherow, a history professor at Kansas State University and author of “Watering the Valley,” a history of the water rights fight over the Arkansas River.

“The recharge in that aquifer is nearly nonexistent — a quarter inch a year. It is a good thing these farmers are limited on what they can pump out or else it would be depleted faster.

“The whole economy relies on pump irrigation — it’s what supports corn, alfalfa and feed mills and feed lots out there.”

When the wind blows out where the Coen family lives north of Elkhart, Mary Coen says she can’t see out her window.

Troy Coen is hoping to survive next year by farming for other, larger farms.

“In our situation, this is our last hurrah if we don’t figure out something pretty quick,” he said.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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