Hemphill County, Texas, enters the new year suffering from more than 70 days without appreciable moisture. A few isolated wildfires have already parched a few acres of rangeland, and a long-range forecast for continued drought makes folks a bit uneasy.
Wildfires burned across this area in the Texas Panhandle, east into Oklahoma and north into Kansas last March, leaving thousands of acres of rangeland bare, thousands of head of cattle dead, and hundreds of miles of fences destroyed.
Worse yet, lives were lost in one of the worst wildfires the region has ever witnessed.
“It’s dry here, now,” says Hemphill County AgriLife Extension agent Andy Holloway, from his office in Canadian. “I am afraid we are slipping back into the clutches of drought. We were in good shape for a while.”
He says right after the wildfires roared across the plains, rainfall gave ranchers hope that rangeland would be quick to recover and that limited restocking would be possible in a few months. “We got from 10 inches to 20 inches of rain just after the fires. We thought with all that rain in late March, April and into May the grass would take off,” he says. “Weeds and succulents got going, but the grass got left behind.”
Holloway says the rain stopped in May, replaced by dry conditions, high winds and triple digit temperatures until August. “We had good rain over 10 days in August that helped us grow a pretty good crop of grass,” he said. “If we had not gotten those rains, we would have no grass now.”
Then it turned dry again. “We have been dry for more than 70 days,” Holloway said the last week of the year. “We had a little dusting of snow one day, but not enough to measure.”
He adds that a climatologist addressing a December beef cattle symposium in Colorado indicated that conditions likely will get worse. “He was real negative about the chances for rainfall over the next 12 months. In fact, he said the average of 17 weather forecast models indicates two-thirds of Texas and all of Oklahoma will see moderate to severe drought for the next 12 months. That’s not sounding very promising.”
Holloway says some ranchers are advising buying hay now. “They say it will be twice as high by spring.”
Wildfires are a fact of life on the High Plains, Holloway says. “Fires will happen; it’s just a matter of when. But last year was unusual. We had something like 40 inches of rain the year before, and we had grass on top of grass. And last January we had a historic ice storm, along with 3 inches to 4 inches of rain.”
That ice snapped branches off trees and littered the landscape with dry wood. “We had a lot of fuel for fire to burn other than the grass. Then the stars aligned perfectly for wildfires, including high March winds. This year, dry conditions are starting earlier than they did in 2016 and early ’17. It gives me pause,” he says, “wondering what we will face if we have big winds like we did last march. That could be catastrophic.”
Holloway says he and other county agents with a lot of rangeland responsibility hope to be “out in front” of wildfire season. “We met in late December and agreed that we need to be prepared for wildfires.”
Prescribed Burn School
They are exploring the possibility of conducting a prescribed burn school sometime in February. The practice offers several benefits, he says, including improving wildlife habitat, but, more importantly, limiting the area around homes, barns and ranch headquarters vulnerable to fire.
He adds that some ranch homes were saved last year by fields of winter wheat that stopped the fire’s advance. Pre-burned areas will serve the same purpose. “Ranchers do not have to use prescribed burn,” he says, “but we want to put the information in front of them, so they will know the advantages and how to use prescribed burn effectively.”
Some folks are leery of prescribed burn, Holloway says. A few years back a prescribed burn got away and burned rangeland on neighboring property. Before that event, no one could sue a state agency for damages. State legislators from the area had that law changed, so legal redress is now a possibility.
“We want to show people how to use prescribed burn safely,” Holloway says.
He says wildfires will not stop, but he and other High Plains agents, landowners and ranchers hope to lessen the damage where possible and prevent the widespread losses of last spring. Recovery from those fires continues with limited restocking.
“Some ranchers are just beginning to restock. Many did not want to go too fast so they could get grazing as fully recovered as possible. A few saw green coming back and began to restock, but that green was mostly weeds,” Holloway says. “It depends on the individual rancher. The more conservative ones did not start restocking until those August rains. One rancher who lost 800 head is just starting to restock. Another had land near the Canadian River that was not burned and has placed cattle in that section. It just depends on the rancher and the range condition.
“We emphasize giving the range as much time as you can give it.”
Holloway says ranchers worked quickly to rebuild fences destroyed by the fires. “We still have some interior fencing to be replaced,” he says, “but exterior fencing got put up pretty fast.”
He says Farm Service Agency emergency programs provided significant benefits to help ranchers rebuild. “A lot of our ranchers took advantage of FSA programs,” he says. “These programs were fully funded. The Livestock Indemnity Program was also dully funded and was a big help. The Federal Government has been a wonderful partner to aid recovery from the wildfires.”
For more information on FSA programs check http://bit.ly/2lgqtuL and http://bit.ly/2EdRvuG .
Holloway says one of the biggest assets the region has is the ranchers’ perseverance. “These ranchers still have a lot of hope,” he says. “People in agriculture are good people, and they have to have hope to survive. These guys are survivors.”
For more information on prescribed burn procedures and benefits, check this Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) page http://bit.ly/2llLbIY .