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for people who care about the West

Ranchers are down, but don't count us out

  How are ranchers and farmers faring through this terrible drought? Will we quit farming and ranching voluntarily? Not on your life.

For some, unfortunately, it will be their last year. Reading the advertisements for livestock auctions tells the story: "Selling due to the drought." Ranchers almost never sell herds of mother cows, just a few here and there when some cows become less productive.

Other ranchers are spending the money and buying enough hay to keep going through this fall and winter. What's available in our area of South Dakota is good quality alfalfa raised on farms with continuing irrigation water, though it sports a premium price to go with the quality.

Blessed are the farmers who irrigate farms and also ranch; for they can usually feed their cows.

For ranchers who have spent several years building herd numbers, and more importantly, herd genetics, selling out is heartbreaking. Sale barns are having more dispersions each week as the drought progresses. When a drought as severe and geographically far reaching as this one occurs, hitting Wyoming, Nebraska, North and South Dakota and Montana, good cattle that might have otherwise been purchased by another rancher are instead turned into hamburger. It is the future generations of calves that will be missed and mourned. Once the mammas are gone, there will be no more babies, and no more income.

Calling it quits on the land has a devastating trickle-down effect. As summer ended, it seems a lot of farm and ranch kids got their back-to-school clothes at second-hand stores. The agricultural community is living the adage, "make do, or do without."

Crops are bad so it won't matter that the combine needs repairs; it won't get used anyway. A decision not to harvest, however, affects the implement dealer, the fuel supplier and on down the line in rural areas.

What really hurts is the scandal around ConAgra shipping tainted beef. There were long delays in notifying the public, and by the time the recall expanded in July to include nearly 19 million pounds of beef, E.coli in the meat had made at least 47 people sick in 23 states.

While ConAgra and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have taken most of the heat, ranchers fear they have also been tainted.

Of course it didn't help when a Colorado prison fed some of the spoiled meat to inmates after apparently misplacing the message warning prison officials of the contamination. The damning publicity continued when ConAgra announced at least 68,000 pounds of the tainted beef would likely be put into ready-to-eat beef meals such as canned chili and meat spaghetti sauce.

Because of the high temperatures in cooking and canning the products, any e-coli residue would be killed. Farmers and ranchers know that, but the people who shop in supermarkets probably don't.

On the other hand, the government has helped out by allowing Conservation Reserve Program acres to be harvested or grazed. The program pays farmers not to plant farm crops, so fields get planted to a permanent grass, usually a mixture of alfalfa and grass seed.

In the tradition of the West, ranchers and farmers have been eager to share their bounties. Retired farmer Jerry Pietron of Larimore, N.D.,donated his 2,000 uncut acres to other farmers in both South and North Dakota. Those farmers in turn, harvested the grass and took the feed home for their starving cattle.

Matt Janowiak from Colorado and his brother, Stan, a Wisconsin farmer, created the Wisconsin-Colorado Haylift after Stan mentioned that he and his neighbors had more clover and alfalfa hay than they could possibly use. Farmers in Klamath Basin, Oregon have also not forgotten how it feels to be without water; they've lined up hay to send to Trinidad, Colo.

Ranchers and farmers like to tell themselves that they are a tough lot who do their best work when left to their own resources. We help our own because it's the way we were raised. But as the year 2002 winds down, we are all having to be tougher than anyone thought possible for a long, long time.

Peggy Sanders is a fourth-generation rancher in Oral, South Dakota, as well as a freelance writer. Her latest project is a book about what people need to know before moving to the country.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].