The northern Panhandle has been hit hard in 2012 by extreme drought and massive wildfires. More than 150,000 acres of rangeland and forest burned in Dawes, Sheridan and Sioux counties during an eight day period in early September and in other smaller fires throughout the summer.
Now, Panhandle ranchers are left scratching their heads, trying to face reality and find opportunity in the face of these challenges, says University of Nebraska Extension educator, Scott Cotton of Chadron. The fires devastated already strained grazing land, and destroyed hay, homes, ranch structures, corrals and more than 2000 miles of fence on private land and U.S. Forest Service land, Cotton says.
He says that the fires will have long range economic impact on agriculture and communities. Grazing land, already ravaged by drought, was scorched when dry lightning strikes started the fires. Cotton estimates that 1,000 families are impacted economically and emotionally by the fires.
Since then, anticipated fall precipitation has not materialized. "It is really dry, and we are low on snow and rain," Cotton says. "A lot of producers have sold off between 40% and 100% of their cow herds, depending on the producer. It's a big challenge. If you do not have your factory, you lose your capability to pay the bills."
Cotton says that the biggest problem moving forward is downed fencelines. Private donations and relief funds have focused on purchasing posts inexpensively in bulk and distributing them to ranchers in need, but replacing 2000 miles of fences, through rough terrain, is a monumental task.
He says that if the region receives rain by April 1, grass growth will be better. "That is kind of our landmark date," he says. "We'll see options for ranchers to rest their pastures, or come in with leased cattle" to provide needed income. But even if precipitation falls, landowners are still dealing with fencing issues before they are able to graze or lease their pastures.
"Even if they had the materials, many of the fences go back to the 1930s and 1940s," Cotton says. "It takes more labor than a landowner might have available."
Cotton says that ranchers market their grass through their cattle. "In reality, we're grass producers," he says. "If we get precipitation, we'll have to learn how to capture income without owning the herd. Maybe ranchers can buy yearlings and pasture yearlings, or lease out their pasture."
But, he says they will need some flexible income to handle the situation. Cotton fears that without needed precipitation this upcoming year, or help from a new Farm Bill, the region might be looking at an out-migration.
Before the drought, estate specialists were saying that between 20% and 40% of land will change ownership in the next decade in the Panhandle. "This could provide us with huge opportunities and huge challenges," Cotton says. For a young person trying to get into ranching, opportunities are available. "I'm hoping this will turn into opportunities," Cotton says.
"The enduring strength here is the dedication to the area, the landscape and the lifestyle," he says. "Farmers and ranchers in the Pine Ridge region are some of the most adept at coping with and overcoming diversity. They are determined to survive and flourish for generations to come."
If you'd like more information about recovery from wildfire and drought in the Pine Ridge region, you can contact Cotton at 308-432-3373 or email [email protected].