August 2006
On the Edge of Common Sense

2006 DROUGHT!

by Baxter Black, DVM

This last winter and spring drought stalked its way down through the sandhills of Nebraska, across Kansas and Oklahoma, stopped long enough to torch the Texas panhandle, scorched New Mexico, then drove a stake in the heart of Arizona’s rangeland.

When the grasslands of the plains turn as tough and fragile as a spider web, proper grazing management can sustain it and prolong it even through dry seasons. But eventually without rain it becomes as nutritious as bristles on a push broom.

We’ve got a saying out here, "Don’t look at the country, look at the cows." But when the cows start fallin’ off we begin looking for solutions: feed protein, feed hay, wean off the big calves, rent pasture in Missouri, or finally sell cows.

Because the profitability of the cow business has been good these last few years, most cowmen begrudgingly began instituting supplemental feeding. But, most of us are thankful. Their value is high enough to justify the additional cost.

Summer rains were never so welcome. It’s like a baseball team struggling at bat, dropping the ball, walking the hitters, changing the pitcher, striking out, getting picked off at second, flying out, getting caught in a pickle and trailing by 3 runs, then suddenly getting a grand slam home run in the bottom of the 7th inning and taking the lead!

The game’s not over but we’re back in it with a fighting chance. Wonderful feeling, rain. The 100 lb bag of worry you’ve been carrying around on your shoulder is gone. You stand taller. Drought is one of those scourges like diabetes or tuberculosis. It can kill you just as dead as a wildfire or flood or tornado, it just takes longer.

We’ve had a bad year or two of drought. It has been regional and it hurts those of us who are affected. But it is not the ’30s when drought broke the back of rural America and changed the face of our nation. Even city people went hungry.

We think of the Great Depression as a collapse of our banking system and stock market but it was also a natural disaster far worse than the San Francisco earthquake, the Galveston flood or New Orleans’ Katrina. This year’s drought was just some western ranchers’ turns in the barrel. Our suburban neighbors hardly noticed; the economy is booming, gasoline is expensive but abundant, and our urban customers keep eating beef like it was chicken and paying record prices!

We’re still in the game. Guess I better order one more load of protein blocks!

Baxter Black is a former large animal veterinarian who can be followed nationwide through this column, National Public Radio, public appearances, television and also through his books, cds, videos and website, www.baxterblack.com.