MCCOOK, Neb. - As the sun rose on another hot day, rancher Brad Randel rode through his feed lot working at a grim task - culling cattle from his herd because his ranch's sparse grass can't sustain them during a crushing drought.
As Randel swung his quarter horse Bay Belle in tight circles, he and a ranch hand separated runty Black Angus heifers to be sold at a livestock auction from the more promising stock. The cows bellowed as the temperature began its climb into the high 90s, the remnants of a late-summer heat wave that blasted the American West with furnace-like temperatures.
In other years, Randel would have kept the smaller heifers longer to see if he could fatten them up. "But this is no typical year," he said.
For more than a year, southwest Nebraska has been in the throes of a record drought that has transformed acres of rich pasture and cropland into miles of dirt and ruined corn, soybeans and milo. Wildfires fueled by high temperatures and dry grass swept through more than 140,000 acres this spring, and rivers, ponds and streams have dried up, forcing ranchers to drive miles to bring water to their parched animals.
The shift threatens a way of life for farmers and ranchers, including many who have worked this corner of the prairie since their great-grandparents homesteaded properties in the late 19th century. In a summer where a surprise early heat wave killed more than 2,000 cattle in Kansas that had not yet shed their winter coats, and water scarcity has deprived many animals of critical sustenance, operators are scrambling to adjust.
Randel and other ranchers are going to great lengths to protect their animals, including closely monitoring temperatures in feed lots and supplying cooling mists, and many are embracing longer-term measures like cutting back on tilling and planting cover crops to prevent soil erosion.
The Biden administration has committed more than $22 billion to climate-friendly farming practices in the Inflation Reduction Act and other measures, on top of more than $4 billion in disaster relief. Yet many of these Americans still say they don't believe in climate change and view federal attempts to address agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions - some 11 percent of the U.S. total - with suspicion.
Even these steps may not be able to compensate for the drought conditions and extreme weather pummeling the region. This summer ranked as America's third hottest on record, with Nebraska "ground zero" for drought, seeing its third driest June through August period, with an average of 5.8 inches of precipitation.
Randel, a lanky man of deep Christian faith, is praying - along with many of his neighbors - that this latest crushing weather pattern is just one more cycle of tough times on the Great Plains, where, the familiar saying goes, every day that goes by is one day closer to the next rain. But if it doesn't snow this winter, he says, he's not sure his cattle operation will survive. He's already reduced his herd by 37 percent.
"If we don't get moisture through the winter, then it's going to be herd liquidation. We'll have to get rid of everything," he said. "I don't know what we'll do! We've never been here before."
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Randel's sprawling ranch just northeast of McCook, that has been in his family since 1887, offers a visual road map of the toll the drought has taken on this region. It traverses dried-up creeks, desiccated rows of corn and a field where six-foot-high weeds normally grow to shelter calves in winter, now reduced to nothing but dirt.
Randel, who lives on the ranch in a low-slung brick home with his wife and two of his daughters - a third is away at college - says the trouble began last summer, when the area got little rain. Then came a snowless winter and another dry spring. So far this year the ranch has gotten nine inches of rain, he said, in a county that normally gets 22 inches of rain a year.
"My dad was famous for saying, 'It gets like this, we've seen droughts before,'" Randel said. "In this country things can turn around in a hurry. One day it can be 100 degrees and the next it's 40. One day it's blowing dust and the next you're fighting mud. We're ready for that turnaround."
Farmers and ranchers in the Great Plains have always endured weather extremes, but they've been buffeted by a series of recent record-breaking catastrophes that have raised alarms about the risk of extreme weather, according to John K. Hansen, the president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. A "bomb cyclone" buried cows alive, killed three and caused the worst flooding the state has ever seen, in 2019 - then, in December of last year, a storm spawned several tornadoes, an unheard-of event.
"The drought is just one more out-of-the ordinary extreme weather event. Climate change isn't coming, climate change is here," said Hansen, an outlier among many in Nebraska's farming community.
Hansen said a growing number of farmers have sought mental help from the state's Rural Response Hotline, seeking vouchers that they can use for counseling - up to 8,046 last year, more than triple the number three years ago. That is one measure of the stress that farm families are under from the twin pressures of the extreme weather and the fallout from the global pandemic, he said.
In McCook, a close-knit town of 7,400 people about four hours east of Denver, the livestock sale barn and its weekly auction have been the heart of civic life since the 1940s.
The manager, Art Ruggles, said that ranchers began bringing their young calves to sell far earlier than normal this summer because they could no longer feed them. Some have been forced to liquidate their entire herds, he said. His family has farmed in the area for over a century, Ruggles said, and the drought is the "worst we've seen."
"People are really negative. I mean, they're scared," said Gary Power, 80, a sheep and goat farmer in McCook. "They're saying, 'What are we going to do for feed to feed our livestock?' and 'Our wheat harvest is one-third of what we were expecting, how long before the bank forecloses?' "
Randel's church recently held a week of noontime prayer vigils where church volunteers passed out fliers that read, "Lord, we are facing severe drought and we plead with You to open the heavens and send rain to this thirsty land."
On the ranch, Randel, 48, delayed turning out cattle onto their pasture for summer grazing for 45 days. When the rain still didn't come, he brought them home to be fed in a paddock in August, four months earlier than normal. Ranchers are struggling to find feed for their livestock as the price of hay - if it even can be found - skyrocketed from $192 a ton in 2020 to $333 this year, according to an American Farm Bureau Federation analysis.
The animals seemed confused to end up in a dry pen, a strange stopover from the pasture to their normal winter feeding in fields of tasty corn stalks. Randel's wife, Adrienne, 47, watched with worry from the picture window in her kitchen as the cows paced along the fence line, obviously not content.
"They seemed to know something was wrong," she said.
On a recent stop to check on some of their cattle that remained in the pasture, the couple found the animals nibbling at whatever little bit of green they could find - weeds and brownish blades - on a sun-drenched hillside below a field of ruined corn.
"It's sad, because you always like to see them grazing on lush grass," said Brad.
"Then you know they're happy, or at least that's what I think," Adrienne said. But she was heartened to see the animals still looked healthy and had a sheen to their coats.
"They look pretty good!" she said.
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During the heat wave in early June in western Kansas, Scott Whiting witnessed something on his ranch in Dighton that he never seen before - his cattle trying to climb into their water tanks in a desperate attempt to keep cool. Two of his calves did not survive.
"It was just brutal," Whiting recalled, a "perfect storm" of factors causing the deaths, including the heat, humidity, hotter-than-usual nights and cattle that had not shed their winter coats.
Ultimately more than 2,000 animals died in the heat wave, leaving rows of carcasses captured in devastating video that made the rounds on social media.
During that four-day period, nearby Dodge City, Kan., reported its highest overnight minimum temperature (83 degrees on June 13) since record-keeping began in 1874, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
For Whiting, making sure his cattle have access to water and can keep cool has been a daily battle. He checks on them constantly, set up new sprinklers and is even now contemplating switching from Black Angus cattle - whose dark coats absorb the heat - to lighter-colored animals.
"I've got a lot of miles to put on every day just to check on the cattle," he said. "Sometimes in extreme heat I'll check the windmills twice a day. We're set up to haul water if we have to - to be ready to go at a moment's notice."
More than 40 percent of the continental U.S. has been in drought for nearly two full years, according to Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the USDA, going back as far as late September 2020. The current dry spell, which set a modern record when it hit 102 consecutive weeks on Sept. 6, has impacted the country's most important ranching and grazing lands in the central and western United States.
Clay Pope, an Oklahoma rancher who does outreach for the USDA's Southern Plains Climate Hub, said that farmers and ranchers - even conservatives who might chafe at the terms "global warming" or "climate change" - need to bolster their land from extreme weather events by minimizing soil tilling, planting cover crops to protect the soil moisture and nutrients during fallow times and using controlled fires to rejuvenate pastures.
"There may be folks that don't believe in climate change but I've never met anybody who doesn't believe in drought and floods," Pope said. "Extreme weather is our new reality. We have to deal with it."
Pope noted that existing USDA conservation programs, which always have way more farmers who want to participate than they can include, got a "huge shot of money" for climate-resilient practices in the Inflation Reduction Act. There's plenty of room for improvement: Only about a third of cultivated crop acreage is farmed without tilling soil, and even fewer farmers plant cover crops - about six percent of crop acres - like the Randels.
Rich Johnson, 66, a rancher from Tilden, Neb., who does believe humans are driving climate change, said that even with such government help, he wonders how long ranching operations like his can endure. A recent American Farm Bureau Federation survey found that 66 percent of respondents have had to sell portions of their herds or flocks this year because of the drought, and only 14 percent of those who sold last year were looking at building back.
Nebraska sits on the Ogallala Aquifer, the vast underground expanse of water spread out over eight states that has sustained agriculture for generations. But people are rapidly depleting it faster than it can recharge, scientists say.
Johnson would like to pass his operation onto his son, but wonders what conditions will be like for his grandson, Cooper, who is now 5.
"Jeez, my grandson, what's he going to have to deal with?" Johnson said. "I'm watching all the [irrigation] pivots goin' and I'm thinking, 'Are we going to be able to do that forever?' "
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After he culled the herd, Randel and his ranch hands loaded up the 350 young heifers and steers and trucked them about 10 miles up the road to McCook's Tri-State Livestock Commission sale barn, which draws farmers from throughout the region for its Monday auction. Inside, handlers steered cattle through gates and onto a weighing platform, the air thick with dust and the smell of manure. Bidders and spectators were arrayed in a circle in carpeted stands around the pen.
Auctioneer Terry Elson kept up his running patter as the lots of cattle came up for sale, trying his best to show off the animals' attributes. He was well aware of the heartbreak of the moment - overseeing the emergency sales of livestock with bloodlines that these farmers had worked for generations to establish.
"You know why they're here, you know the circumstances of the drought," Elson told the crowd about one lot from a rancher in nearby Cambridge who was selling almost his entire herd. "You get the chance to bid for 90 heifers, they would make beautiful breeding heifers. . . . They don't have a fly on 'em."
Randel, his wife and youngest daughter Aleigh sat with some of his employees in the stands, watching their cattle come up for sale. When Elson hit the gavel for the final bid, Randel made $1,043 for each steer and $727 a piece for the heifers.
"One good thing about all this is that even though we had to sell, cattle prices have stayed good, so we got a pretty good price for them," Randel said afterward.
Adrienne said she, too, was pleased, and confident they could make it through tough times.
"It's not like there aren't days when you go, 'Really?'" she said. "But we've seen God's faithfulness to us for years and years and generations. So that's what gives you strength, you know this too shall pass."
Besides, she said, every day that goes by is one day closer to the next rain.
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The Washington Post's Alice Crites and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.