Thursday, September 6, 2012

Time Will Tell

It's going to be a tricky winter.  Some folks are saying it's going to be a bad one for snow, while others are saying we'll probably have more of the same conditions we've been having.  Either way, it will be something to deal with.

I contracted my cottoncake for the cows and calves yesterday.  Let's just say that it's going to be VERY expensive.  But you'd expect that.  With the drought we expect less corn, beans, wheat, etc than were initially expected, driving the prices up.....Way up.  Much of  the yields will not be poor since a majority of farmers have some kind of irrigation here in the middle of the US.  Dryland crops will be much less than projected early this spring.  Because no one really projected that we were heading into a drought season.  It's one of the "sh*t runs down hill" type things that has an effect on everyone.

Hay prices are absolutely through the roof.  I've talked to several ranchers who have "wet meadows" they put up hay on.  They are able to mow places they haven't been able to mow in many years because it is so dry.  The hay isn't as good as it has been, but it's going to beat a snowbank.....if we get any.  We hear folks are bringing in alfalfa hay from Canada for $400/ton.  Let me put that in perspective just a bit for you.  In a normal year, we feed roughly 10 ton A DAY.  We are a pretty small operation compared to some.  Fortunately for us, we have had a surplus the last few years and have added to our hay this year from our pivot of alfalfa.  There's still a chance we might be able to get a fourth cutting which won't be a lot of hay, but it will be hay we didn't have before.  Depending upon the winter conditions, we should have enough to get us through the winter.

It's definitely a learning time for many of us.  We have had things so good the last few years that for the most part, it's been a "no-brainer" getting through each season.  For me anyway, it's been a year of a lot more "putting the pencil to the paper" , so to speak.  One good thing about us ranchers.......we spend a lot of time alone where we are able to do a lot of thinking. 

But to me, the thing that is perhaps going to trip some of my fellow ranchers up (and I could be wrong about's pretty much just speculation here) is what's going to happen next year.  While our cows still look good now, I believe that is the benefit of the last few years of good grass and nice winters.  I think a cow's system is actually a year behind what her body looks like.  So it could be difficult to care for the cows this winter.  I think, more than ever,  nutrition will be key this year.  And perhaps we'd be ahead to feed better than usual, to try getting our cows through this difficult time and have them ready for calving and breeding season NEXT YEAR. 

Time will tell what the cattle industry holds for the next few years.  I'm sorry to say this drought will probably put some producers out of business, like it did for cattle producers in the southern states.  Others will squeak by and still others will somehow make a lot of money from others' misfortune.  Again, I will be trusting my "Heavenly Cow Boss" to help make the right decisions and to bring us through a difficult time.  Whatever happens, I know He will be there to take care of us and bring us through better on the other side.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Fighting Fire

It's still mighty dry in the Sandhills.  And while we haven't had a lot of lightening in recent weeks that hasn't led to a  little moisture, there is still a terrible threat of fires.  The humidity is down to around 20 percent on a lot of days, so even a tiny spark (caused by a piece of haying equipment, a cigarette, a catalytic converter on a pickup, or anything else you can or can't imagine) could lead to a fire right now.  All of us who live and love the Sandhills are walking on eggshells being so careful.  But still, accidents happen.  Just like yesterday.

I don't know for sure what caused the fire.  Word was, a combine or other such equipment caused a spark, but no one seemed to know for sure.  What was certain is there was a big ol' fire.  And it was comin' at a high lope.  The high winds were out of the southwest, then out of the southeast and sometimes straight out of the south.  Some folks don't know that a fire can make it's own wind too.  So not only did this fire have a lot of fuel to burn, it was taking on a life of it's own.  And let me tell was angry.

It all works like this......our local volunteer fire department will get a call for either a fire in our county or a mutual aid to another county.  If it's like it was yesterday and the fire is burning pretty much out of control, the fire department will call ranchers on their list who are known to have "grass rigs" (sprayers set up on a smaller scale of the fire department's) to come help.  Most of the time, if we see smoke, we are trying to find out where the fire is already and heading in the direction of it.

We got the call about the end of the first quarter of the Husker game.

Since we have been to quite a few fires already this year and it is never a pleasant thing to know folks are losing property, I can't say Matt or I was looking forward to going.  But we go.  We go because we know how it would be if it was us.  We'd sure want folks to come help us if it was our grass on fire.  My heart breaks every time we go to a fire and I see folks trying to move their cattle out of the way.......I have to fight awful hard to hold back tears.  I am not holding them back now.  When I think of how it would be for me to be afraid for my livelihood, what I work for and love, I can almost not bear it.  I love the hills and the grass and I most certainly hate seeing anyone's property damaged.....but the cattle....they are my passion, I guess.  And I assume they mean as much to others as they do to me.  So it is especially hard to think of something happening to them.

I am guessing this fire was a good 30 miles from us.  Now it might seem silly to drive all that way to a fire and leave your own backyard where something could happen, but especially on a day like yesterday, it was pretty obvious from the smoke billowing up in the air, that we could plainly see from our house, that they were in definite need of help.

Our grass rig is set up on my cake feeding pickup.  The tank holds 200 gallons of water and can either be filled with a hose on the top, or we can suck up water out of a stock tank.  At the bigger fires, there will be several "tankers" from the fire departments who are back a little bit from the fire but still close enough we can get to them, fill up and get back to the fire pretty quickly.  Our fire department has blue lights flashing on the top of theirs, so if it's dark out, you can look for blue flashing lights and know where to go fill up.  If we don't see a tanker close by, we look for a stock tank to fill out of.  Generally if there are cattle in that pasture (or a year like this one) the windmill will be on and pumping and we can get water for our tank there.

Actually fighting the fire is kind of a case by case deal.  But there are a few rules, if you will, that everyone needs to know.  One big rule is to get in the black if you are in trouble.  The black is where the fire has already burned.  If it's already burned, it can't burn again so you can be safe there.  Another rule most of us ranchers go by is to stay at the back of the fire.  The fire departments are way better equipped to put out the big head fires.  Those can get BIG!  And ferocious.  But on occasion, the ranchers are forced to the front if, for instance, the fire department isn't there yet, or there are just too many head fires going at once.

If a little bit of fire gets left going, it can cause a "finger" to come up the back side of the fire.  That happens pretty often, especially if there aren't enough people fighting in the same spot.  Ideally, on a bigger deal like yesterday, several rigs can follow each other, and each one puts out a little more fire, making sure it's completely out.  Right on the edge of the fire there can be bits of grass or a soapweed or a cow chip left smoldering that can spark into the dry grass next to it and start the fire burning again.  So even after the whole thing is out, we need to go around "mopping up" (usually the fire departments do this....thankfully) and just keep dousing the edges with water to make sure nothing gets away.

I will absolutely not drive on the fire line.  For one reason, because I have a tendency to get a little shook at these deals.  I am also short enough that I can barely see over the hood of the pickup and in some of the places we go, it would be pretty easy to drive off into a big hole or blowout.  But the main reason is because I trust Matt to take care of me.  And he is smart in scary situations. So I am on the back of the pickup, spraying water.  I get bumps and bruises and have gotten pretty hot on a few occasions, but have never really been scared to be back there.....mostly because if I holler at Matt to get us out, he gets us out. 

Yesterday was a little different than any fire I have been to before.  The smoke was worse than anything I've ever been in.  There were moments when Matt literally could not see the grill guard on the front of the pickup.....that's bad.  Because you know if YOU can't see, no one else can either.  We would have to pull out of the fire to a place where we could see, leaving the fire to keep burning.  Then go back to the back and start again.  We finally got a little different game plan on this fire, to go against the grain, so to speak and stay out of the majority of the smoke.  It's not how it's usually done, but it worked.

We are most definitely looking forward to some snow cover this winter, although, I have to admit, it doesn't look too promising for that to happen.  We will keep looking to the sky and praying for whatever moisture the Good Lord will send us.....and thanking Him for blessing us with no fires.....