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Wildfires That Left Millions of Acres Burned, Livestock Dead Can’t Break Cattlemen’s Spirit

The recent wildfires in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas killed thousands of head of livestock, destroyed almost 1 million acres of farmland, and wiped out 1,400 miles of fence, all resulting in millions of dollars in damages. 

But there’s a beacon of hope in what would otherwise be a very dark time for ranchers and producers in the form of good neighbors doing what good neighbors do – taking care of one another. 

Donations of hay, fence, and posts and other needed products have been coming in from as close as the neighboring county to as far away as Michigan, says Tom Fanning, the manager at Buffalo Feeders, a 30,000-head lot near Buffalo, Oklahoma, where donated items are being stored. 

“We had a fast and immediate response with hay donations and trucking services, and we continue to see that,” Fanning tells Successful Farming magazine. “We had trucks coming in from Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, and Indiana. It’s amazing to see the response from the ag community.” 

A total of 779,292 acres have burned in Oklahoma since the start of the year, including 662,700 acres in the most recent Starbuck Fire, according to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. The rest burned in the Beaver, Selman, and 283 other fires earlier this year. 

Statewide, there were 924 reported wildfires between January 1 and March 29. About 3,000 head of cattle, 6,500 hogs, nine structures, and 1,400 miles of fence were destroyed in the Starbuck Fire alone, the department says.

In Kansas, the fire destroyed about 400,000 acres of farmland, bringing the state’s total burned area this year to almost 650,000 acres, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. As many as 8,000 animals were killed and about 20% of the state’s counties were affected. 

In Texas, approximately 500,000 acres were burned. The state Animal Health Commission’s Region 1 office reported 2,500 cattle, 1,900 swine, and an untold amount of wildlife were lost. 

The fires have abated after “significant rainfall gave us a break,” Oklahoma Ag Department spokeswoman Michelle Finch-Walker says. That also gives firefighters a chance to rest and fix equipment that was heavily used in the “historic” fire year, she says.

The response to the wildfires was swift with donations beginning to roll in as soon as the need was made public, says Lane Broadbent, the president of brokerage KIS Futures in Oklahoma City. 

“Just our little town (of Cashion, Oklahoma) of 800 people donated probably $15,000 worth of stuff,” he says. “People from Leedey (Oklahoma) donated $15,000 to $20,000 worth of hay and other things.”

A rancher from Nebraska brought an entire trailer load of fence posts to the tune of about $10,000; trucks loaded with hay have come in; and nearby church and civic groups have cooked meals for volunteers, firefighters, and ranchers involved in the relief efforts. 

The loss of cattle was devastating for some, with one farmer losing 500 of his 600 head in the Starbuck Fire, Fanning says. Government plans are in place to help the rancher, but it’s likely he will get about half the value of his herd’s worth because of the way the programs work. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday authorized emergency grazing on Conservation Reserve Program lands in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. 

“Ranchers are facing devastating conditions and economic calamity because of these wildfires and they need some relief, or else they face the total loss of their herds in many cases,” Acting Deputy Secretary Michael Young says in a statement. “These measures will allow them to salvage what remains of their cattle and return to the important business of feeding Americans and the rest of the world.”

Broadbent says cattle losses won’t have much of an impact on prices going forward as some had expected because the market is so large – Oklahoma had about 5 million head of cattle and calves at the start of the year. The biggest loss from a monetary and time outlook is the thousands of miles of fences that were destroyed, he says.

“It’s a game-changer as far as having to replace the fences,” Broadbent says. “The infrastructure is where most of the farmers got hurt.” The cost to replace fences, including labor, works out to be around $10,000 a mile, Fanning says.

Still, cattlemen are a resilient bunch. Many in the region are optimistic that they’ll rebound as recent rains hopefully will boost grass growth, replenishing pastures lost to the fires. 

That, along with donations that continue to roll in through the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association website (okcattlemen.org/), gives ranchers hope that things in the area will soon return to normal.

“The scope of this fire was so big that people aren’t trying to get their heads around the whole thing – they’re just trying to do the most they can today, then do the most they can tomorrow,” says Fanning, whose house was just over a mile from the fires before the rains came. “But we’re optimistic. If we weren’t optimists, we couldn’t be in the cattle business.” 

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