NORDEN, Neb. — As weary volunteers and ranchers returned home Thursday from a week of fighting a near-state-record-sized wildfire, a grim decision awaited many.
What to do about their cattle?
As many as 20 ranches saw pastures and hay fields blackened as part of the 72,405-acre blaze along the scenic Niobrara River Valley.
This year's drought had already kicked cattle producers in the gut, with skimpy hay crops, stunted pastures and higher prices for hay or other feed.
But losing what little they had made a bad problem worse. It will force many to sell cattle earlier than planned, or to reduce or liquidate entire herds.
“If I have to buy hay or rent new pasture, I have no idea how I can make that work,” said Steven Breuklander, who ranches near the Rocky Ford rapids and lost 90 to 95 percent of his grazing land.
At the Valentine Livestock Auction barn on Thursday, one rancher affected by the fire sold 80 head of cattle, said manager Greg Arendt, who expects others to follow.
“That's just the tip,” Arendt said. “We'll see more.”
Cattle is still king in this area of north-central Nebraska, even though the summertime brings an influx of 1,500 to 2,000 people a weekend for canoe and inner-tube float trips.
Circular fields of irrigated corn in this area are grown to feed cattle, as are sun-parched pastures of native grasses and fields of hay.
Drought conditions this year not only provided a primer for the devastating fires, but also had already reduced food sources for local cattle herds and raised the cost of supplemental feed.
A year ago, with abundant rains, hay sold for around $65 a ton. This year, it costs $160 a ton, according to Jeri Nelson at the Bassett Livestock Auction.
Last year, Breuklander said he was able to produce 1,600 big, round bales of hay. This year, he put up 300 bales.
“And I'm already done haying for the year due to the drought,” he said.
On Wednesday, Lawrence Turner watched as his son, Larry, and daughter, Tammy, herded a group of about 30 white-faced cattle back into a pasture near the burn area around Norden.
The cattle had been moved away from the flames over the weekend, and now were returning to a smaller pasture that hadn't been scorched black.
It's a temporary solution. The Turners will have to sell the cattle earlier than expected because of a lack of new pasture to rent.
“It's terrible. There's just no place to take 'em,” said Tammy Turner, a mail carrier from Bryan, Texas, who returned home to help her family deal with the calamity.
Her father, a former Cherry County Commissioner, said he won't be the only rancher to “face reality.”
“We were dry already and short of grass,” Lawrence Turner said.
Official reports have included no accounts of cattle killed by the fire, though some ranchers said they have not yet located some calves scattered by the flames.
The effects of the fire are expected to linger, those interviewed said, and will reverberate in the many segments of the livestock industry that sustain the local economy.
Ranchers who have to reduce or liquidate herds might require two years or more to build back their numbers. Fewer cattle in the area means less money to spend in local towns, fewer animals headed to local livestock markets, and lower demand for feed or veterinary care.
“Now, they have no (auction barn) business in Texas,” said Arendt, the Valentine livestock market manager. “Their drought is really severe. This one (in Nebraska) isn't that bad yet, but it could get there.”
He said it took two to three years for pastures to rebound after a devastating range fire in the Thedford area a few years ago.
One bright spot may be that the grazing land in the Niobrara River canyons should be more productive since the pine trees that once cast too much shade for grass have been reduced to blackened toothpicks.
But that will take a while.
“The guys who lost all their grass got nowhere to go,” said Monte Frauen, a Valentine rancher. “You might have driven your cattle out of the fire and saved their lives, but now you're headed to the sale barn.”
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