By Russell Hixson
STILLWATER, Okla. —
The Durham Ranch’s fields where brown and black cows are lazily grazing under cloudy skies look idyllic. They are covered in a short carpet of green grass — something desperately needed in a county ravaged by two years of drought.
“This is cheat grass,” said Jane Durham as she runs her fingers through it. It lives up to its name. While it looks nice and provides some food for cattle, the grass is the result of spring rains and will be gone in a few short weeks. What the Durhams and the other county cattle producers need are sturdier, longer lasting grasses that can be eaten or turned into hay.
But Durham demonstrates the problem by showing brown, dead stalks under the cheat grass. Years of little rain, hot weather and grazing have strained these grasses to the breaking point. She and her husband Norman estimate it would take two or three years of good rain and mild weather to nurse the fields to health. The rains would also go a long way to replenish the Durham’s ponds. While recent rains have helped some, the ponds need four to five feet more of water.
Ranchers who are trying to keep their cattle fed have to buy hay if they can’t make it. The cost adds up quickly. The Durhams bought round bales from the Texas panhandle in January at $100 per round bale. During a good year, they would have been able to find hay closer to home for less than half that price.
They aren’t the only one’s struggling. Payne County Extension Educator Nathan Anderson said the whole county’s cattle industry has been hit hard during the past two years. Many ranchers have had to sell off parts of their herds to survive. According to Anderson, In 2010 there were 51,000 head of cattle in the county. That dropped to 44,500 in 2012 and Anderson estimates recent cattle numbers have declined by as much as one third.
The Durhams have sold 30 percent of their herd due to the drought and they suspect another brutal summer could force them to sell and additional 30 percent.
This effects more than just cattle ranchers, Anderson said. The cattle industry is one of the largest economic forces in the county.
He said every year the agriculture industry produces between $32 million and 38 million — 90 percent of that is from cattle.
“You’re dropping our gross revenue down substantially,” he said.
No relief seems to be in sight as meteorologists in Norman predict another hot, dry summer. The Durhams have hope.
“That’s one thing about being in agriculture — you are always optimistic,” Norman Durham said. “We will just have to wait and see.”