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The recent Texas wildfire highlights the challenges faced by cattle ranchers due to climate extremes. In some cases, the ranchers' cattle were so severely burned that they could not be rescued.
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The recent Texas wildfire highlights the challenges faced by cattle ranchers due to climate extremes. In some cases, the ranchers’ cattle were so severely burned that they could not be rescued.

The grim task of assessing the carnage is under way after the largest wildfire in Texas history turned the Panhandle’s picturesque hillsides into a hellscape of ash and ember. The sparsely populated ranges have long been cattle country, and thousands of burnt carcasses were left strewn across the landscape.

Currently, farmers are using forklifts to gather their valuable cows and facing difficult choices on which wounded ones may need to be put down. Authorities in the area approximated that there could be over 10,000 casualties in livestock due to this calamity, and it will likely take several years to fully recuperate from the damages.

Gary Joiner, the spokesperson for the Texas Farm Bureau, stated that the extensive burned areas indicate that a ranch has lost all of its grass and grazing capabilities. He also mentioned that these are not just regular farms and ranches, but family-owned ones that have been in operation for multiple generations. He added that the magnitude of this fire is unlike anything they have experienced before.

Reworded: In a traditional career connected to the land, ranchers are accustomed to dealing with the unpredictable forces of nature. However, with the increase in extreme weather events across the United States, American cowboys are facing more difficult obstacles and experiencing greater damages. Livestock have been affected by extreme temperatures, strong storms, and long periods of dry weather, and these sudden shifts between extreme conditions are anticipated to become more severe.

The current situation has presented difficult challenges for farmers throughout the United States, as they bear the brunt of the climate crisis and simultaneously confront their industry’s contribution to global warming. Despite these obstacles, there is an increasing discussion about ways to adapt and preserve the environment. In an industry closely linked to personal and cultural identity, these talks are being motivated not only by the risk of severe weather, but also by the determination to protect the land for future generations.

Equipment on dry land

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If the desire for beef stays strong, the individuals in charge of these ranches are motivated to continue supplying it, even during times of adversity.

Philip Weltmer, a Kansas cattle rancher who comes from a long line of ranchers, emphasized the importance of learning from past experiences and being prepared. He has faced challenges such as drought, extreme cold, and fires that have affected his livestock. While he recognizes that his grandparents endured even tougher struggles, he remains vigilant about the current threats.

The speaker stated that they have improved their management skills through learning. However, the most difficult aspect as a producer is witnessing something they have put so much effort into being destroyed.

I desire for it to remain here for my children.

In recent years, strong winds have consistently blown through the arid prairies of the Texas Panhandle. However, never before have circumstances aligned to such an extent that blazing fires could spread so rapidly and extensively. This was the case with the Smokehouse fire, which ravaged over 1 million acres and broke the record as the largest fire in Texas history.

The area has experienced extreme fluctuations between periods of heavy rainfall and drought in the past few years. Last year, there were both intense downpours and record-breaking heat in the state. These weather patterns prepared the land for wildfires by producing plentiful dry vegetation that became even more parched during temperature spikes. The combination of strong winds and low humidity provided the perfect conditions for a small spark to turn into a massive inferno.

Ongoing investigations are being conducted to determine the cause of the fires. However, Xcel Energy, the power company, is already facing legal action due to a fallen utility pole that could have potentially started the largest fire. While the exact impact of the climate crisis on the fires requires more research, this tragic event aligns with the predictions scientists have made.

The rural towns scattered across the vast grasslands are now marked with melted street signs, while hundreds of homes and businesses lie in ruins. Local authorities report that approximately 120 miles of power lines, which supply energy for pumping wells, have been demolished. Additionally, essential fencing and pastures used for containing cattle have been damaged.

Silhouette of cow and trees in front of flamesView image in fullscreen

The cattlemen are facing significant losses, not only in their livestock but also in the landscapes where they graze. According to Joiner, they are lacking essential resources such as grass and water to care for and sustain their surviving animals. He also expressed concerns over the respiratory problems, injuries, and orphaned calves that will require bottle-feeding to survive. He described the heartbreaking situation of some animals being too severely burned to be saved.

The extensive damage caused by the fire has limited the available food for the remaining groups of animals. However, donations of hay are being sent from all over the country. The community of ranchers, who extend beyond state boundaries, includes individuals who have gone through their own hardships and are willing to offer assistance.

In Kansas, Weltmer has observed the arrival of trucks filled with hay and marked for Texas, and he is not taken aback by the overwhelming show of solidarity. He previously witnessed these trucks coming into town as they helped during a fire that affected his cattle.

Kansas is the third largest cattle producer in the United States, following behind Texas and Nebraska. In recent years, the state has faced difficult times. One rancher, Weltmer, located in the center of the US, has begun to see his dry pastures slowly turn green as a result of a severe drought. Last winter, Kansas experienced such low temperatures that Weltmer’s propane tanks froze, and in the summer, the extreme heat and humidity led to the death of thousands of cows. The state has also seen drastic weather changes, with temperatures ranging from 115F to -11F. These sudden shifts have caused stress on the cattle and decreased their food sources, making them less able to withstand future extreme weather conditions.

The troublesome trends have impacted other states too. Across the country, inventories for US beef cows are at the lowest they have been since 1951, according to a survey released by the USDA in January. Extremes have always been part of the job, but Weltmer doesn’t dismiss the challenges ahead. He’s determined to adapt. “I feel it is my responsibility to leave the ground better,” he said. “I want it to be here for my kids.”

After considering everything else, it ultimately boils down to having hope.

Weltmer commented that we rely on Mother Nature and trust that rainfall will occur. He also stated that we can find solace in the beauty of God’s creation.

Dry landscape

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There is not a singular solution to this problem.

However, there are instances where the land is unable to recover. In California, rancher Dr. David Daley, whose family has been in the business for five generations, is still facing the harsh consequences of the Bear fire even after four years since it was put out.

During a devastating fire season in 2020, a part of the North Complex fire, which caused 16 deaths, consumed large areas of dense forests on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains where Daley’s cattle used to roam.

“In some respects it is still very raw,” he said, recounting the horrifying memories of a desperate search for survivors of his herd. Only a quarter of his 400-head herd were found alive and many of them wouldn’t survive their injuries. Daley and his family found cattle with their legs burned off, or their eyes gone, the animals he cared for rendered unrecognizable and stiffened where they lay on the scorched earth. Dead calves were found alongside dead fawns, perhaps huddled together in their final moments before they were overtaken by the flames.

Burnt car on side of the road

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“I still feel queasy, even after four years have passed and I wake up to it,” he stated. The previously thriving areas are now filled with burnt trees. “It’s not just about the livestock – it’s about the entire ecosystem,” he added. “I still feel pain when I visit the area, and I don’t know if that feeling will ever go away.”

However, his main preoccupation is not the most recent catastrophe, but rather the upcoming one. Fallen branches and other debris cover the ground in sections of the forest that are once again susceptible to fire.

A retired animal science professor from California State University, Chico, he holds a doctorate and has accumulated years of personal experience in these mountains. He holds the belief that insufficient efforts are being made to prevent the disasters that have impacted him and his beloved lands.

He has communicated his personal narrative and knowledge to lawmakers, journalists, and professionals over the course of his career, becoming more and more exasperated with the time wasted on political debates and blame-shifting between leaders on both sides who are disconnected from the environments they oversee. The climate crisis worsened the fire conditions that destroyed these woodlands, but there were also decades of poor land management choices that contributed to the severity.

“He expressed that our main focus appears to be placing blame on someone or something rather than considering solutions. He hopes that these tragedies will lead to a determination to approach things in a different way.”

In order to face the difficulties ahead, Daley is advocating for influential moderate individuals who can lead the way in implementing region-specific measures to reduce the effects of climate change. This includes not wasting time arguing and instead taking action. In his region, this entails implementing sustainable practices to minimize climate impact and increasing efforts to manage vegetation in the forest, following the example of Indigenous nations who have long taken care of the land. Daley believes that restoring the use of fire in the forest is also crucial. To achieve all of this, he emphasizes the importance of people coming together.

“There isn’t a single reason for this and there isn’t a single fix,” he included. “We must all offer assistance to each other.”

Source: theguardian.com