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Here's How This Year's Drought Has Battered The Midwest — And What It Might Mean For Next Year

Here's How This Year's Drought Has Battered The Midwest — And What It Might Mean For Next Year

By David Condos

From deadly wildfires to choking dust storms to decimated crop harvests, this year’s drought has left its mark across the country. For the hardest hit areas, such as the Great Plains, recovering from the far-reaching impacts of this historically dry year won’t be easy.

LA CROSSE, Kansas — On G.W. Johnston’s ranch in west-central Kansas, the grass never got green this summer.

So he's had to buy hay to keep his cattle alive — in the middle of a widespread drought that's pushed those hay prices way up.

He could sell all his cattle, at the cost of leaving behind the work that's defined his life. Watching his calves arrive in the spring, he said, is what counts as his therapy during a stressful year like this.

David Condos

Rancher G.W. Johnston had to sell 52 of his calves at a recent cattle auction in La Crosse. The drought has dried up grazing pastures across the Great Plains, forcing ranchers to thin their herds.

But he's out of grass.

So he came here to the La Crosse Livestock Market to auction off 52 of his calves.

“You always think it’s gonna get better,” Johnston said. “Out of 60 years since I’ve been in the business, I’ve never run into it this bad.”

David White

Johnston’s story marks just one example of the countless ways this historically dry, hot, windy year is wreaking havoc from coast to coast.

A group of cattle pass through the auction ring at La Crosse Livestock Market. With so many ranchers thinning their herds ahead of schedule, the beef industry faces a shortage in the coming years.

Drought now covers more than half of the continental U.S., and its ripple effects touch everything from the food we eat to the air we breathe to the water we drink. In one of the hardest hit regions, the Great Plains, there’s not much relief in sight.

In Missouri, the drought is cracking home foundations. In Minnesota, it’s killing Christmas trees. Low water levels have shut down a hydroelectric plant in Iowa and stranded barges on the Mississippi River.

David White

Throughout this "Parched" series of stories, reporter David Condos explores how water — and a lack of it — shapes life in western Kansas.

Frank Seidel, who owns the La Crosse cattle auction, has seen his share of bad droughts in this semi-arid part of the world. But never like this.

“Not to this severity,” Seidel said. “You look at them pastures, and they’re just grubbed down to nothing.”

Kansas cattle would normally be grazing on a buffet of prairie grass over the past few months. But in one of the driest, hottest summers on record in western Kansas, oppressive drought scorched pastures across the region.

That left ranchers with a tough choice this fall: bring in expensive feed to get your livestock through the winter or sell however many cattle you must to keep your livelihood afloat.

“It’s everybody. There’s no one excluded from it,” Seidel said. “The conversation is always, ‘I ain’t got enough feed. I don’t have enough feed. So, I can’t keep them all.’”

David White

La Crosse Livestock Market owner Frank Seidel watches as cattle are auctioned off during a recent sale.

This livestock market has auctioned off 12,000 more cattle this year than it did by this point last year, Seidel said, an increase of nearly 20%.

So many ranchers were calling Seidel clamoring to thin their herds in the late summer that he had to double the number of auctions from every other week to every week.

In the hallways outside the La Crosse auction ring, the historic gravity of this year’s drought comes into focus.

David White

Max Prose of Lane County, Kansas, had to sell off his calves in August. His ranch has received less than half of its normal rainfall this year.

Max Prose’s ranch in Lane County got less than half of its paltry average rainfall this year. In the 71 years he’s farmed, this is the first that his land has no moisture left in its soil. He had to sell off his calves in August.

“There’s places in my pasture that didn’t get any rain at all,” Prose said. “The cactus have died.”

Gene Tilton, who farms and raises cattle near Quinter in northwest Kansas, said the only thing that could turn this drought around is a blizzard like the one that helped claw the region out of a similar drought 65 years ago.

“It’s dry. … Dry as it’s been since 1955,” Tilton said. “I was here.”

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