ALTON, Mo. – The state of Missouri was drought-free a couple of months ago. Now, a drive across farmlands exhibits burned-up grasses as cattle move slowly in search of shade under the scorching summer sun.
On the rolling hills of southern Missouri near the town of Alton, grasslands once lush and dark green are now dead after extreme drought conditions set in.
"We had a lot of water, but, really, about the end of May, it just shut off. And it got really, really hot, probably the hottest I’ve ever seen it," commercial cattle rancher Patrick Ledgerwood said.
Ledgerwood is responsible for over 350 cows on 2,500 acres of grassland.
"Grass is how we feed, and that’s what makes this area of the country so profitable as you can be for cattle," Ledgerwood said. "We don’t grow any crops here."
Last week, Gov. Mike Parson, a rancher himself, issued an executive order to assist 53 counties in southern and central Missouri, primarily counties south of the Missouri River, from drought.
"I know on my farm that conditions have deteriorated quickly, and we are hearing the same reports from countless other farm and ranch families across the state," Parson said. "By responding now, early in this drought, we can greatly reduce the impact on our agricultural community and Missouri citizens. Our farmers are a critical resource for our state, and it is important that we assist them as much as possible through this difficult time."
Drought conditions in many parts of Missouri compound the challenges producers are already facing with high fuel prices and input costs, according to Missouri Department of Agriculture Director Chris Chinn.
"Livestock producers are having to make difficult decisions about selling livestock because there is no pasture in many areas. Grain farmers are watching their crops wither before pollination. Conditions are difficult for many Missouri farmers and ranchers," Chinn said.
Finding Ledgerwood’s cattle is not simple these days. Shelter from the conditions is often deep into the pastures.
Cattle have a tough time in the heat, just like people do, and they are in search of ponds to cool off. They also look for trees to lie underneath. And for producers, it’s not easy to keep them alive or take them to market in the aftermath.
"So where we are headed, there have been multiple fires here in the last couple of weeks … more than I can ever remember," Ledgerwood said. "A neighbor of mine last weekend, he lost 200 acres and almost lost every barn he has."
The pastures are blackened from the flames, and some trees are still smoldering under daytime temperatures near 100 degrees.
Father and son farmer duo Tom and J.P. Johnson said their land is their livelihood, and they were seconds from losing it all this past weekend.
"I would say maybe a minute … and that would be pushing it, from the time this fire crossed (the) fence," Tom Johnson said.
Dozens of friends, neighbors and local volunteer fire departments came as quickly as humanly possible. Without their care and battle, the Johnsons said all their barns, equipment and thousands more acres would likely have gone up in flames.
Time was definitely of the essence.
"No room for error, really," Johnson said. "All these local fire departments, volunteer fire departments, you can see we were seconds away from losing everything here."
"And just community people too, friends," T.J. Johnson adds.
They are all stewards of the land with eyes on the sky, hoping for rain but preparing for anything Mother Nature has in store.
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