Wichita Dighton rancher Don Hineman and his neighbors are doing everything they can to resist selling off their cows. The drought, however, may leave them with no choice.
"Pastures are brown, the grass is gone and the cows are wondering what is coming next," he said.
Drought has already wilted much of the state's wheat crop, dashing the hopes of farmers and many of the custom cutters hired to bring the harvest in. Now, the searing heat and lack of moisture is zeroing in on livestock farmers like Hineman and the land on which the herds feed.
Next week, Hineman plans to fence his wheat stubble field and put his herd there to graze, banking that it will be enough to sustain the cows and calves for at least another month, until he weans the calves off.
He also planted some fast-growing Sudan grass, a warm-season grass that can produce a lot of forage in years in which there's adequate rainfall.
But the rains haven't arrived.
"You keep watching the western horizon hoping to see a rain cloud," Hineman said.
He considered putting some livestock on the newly released Conservation Reserve Program acres, but said government rules make it unrealistic.
Hineman would have to pay the same amount per-acre to rent CRP as it would cost him for seasonal grass grazing, and then he could only graze about 25 percent of the land. He'd also be required to fence the land, and if the rains come the government could force him off.
"That is the kind of program that makes politicians feel a lot better than cattlemen," he said.
While parched grazing lands across much of the Plains haven't yet forced large-scale cow slaughter, that could change this summer depending on how long the drought lasts, said James Mintert, livestock marketing specialist at Kansas State University.
Beef cow slaughter during June started to increase, rising 4 percent above last year an increase that could signal what's to come later this summer as producers start to cull even deeper.
The West and parts of the Plains have been dry for so long, Mintert said, that many producers aggressively culled cattle the last couple of years. Those cows, sold at auctions this spring, were young enough and in good enough condition that they were in demand by cattlemen in Corn Belt states where pasture and forage conditions were better.
But if pasture conditions continue to deteriorate this summer, beef cow slaughter will be larger than last year as cattlemen match their herds to dwindling feed supplies.
To help producers hang on to their herds, the Kansas Livestock Assn. plans a field day Aug. 19 in Wallace on drought management options.