In the wake of a rash of wildfires in the northeastern panhandle of Texas, producers have banded together to save their communities and the main industry in the area — live cattle production. On Sunday, March 12, 2006, an accident at an oil drilling location on the 6666 Ranch sparked a wildfire that ravaged 684,500 acres in nine counties. Eleven people perished in the fire, along with an estimated 3,000 head of cattle and horses. The fire was indiscriminate — it burned anything and everything in its path. Wooden fence posts are burned off clean at the ground. High line poles were left smoldering where they stood, and piles of black ash are all that remain of hay put up for the winter.
During the fire, the winds swirled from every direction — from the south and west during the day and from the north at night — and at times were in excess of 55 mph. These conditions led to one of the worst wildfires on record in the state of Texas. Wooden platforms on the tops of windmills 25 feet in the air were burned. In some Conservation Reserve Program areas, where excess grass fueled the fire, flames shot in excess of 50 feet in the air. Volunteer firefighters from as far away as Fargo, Okla., came to help fight the fire, along with the Texas Forest Service and Army helicopters. Most of the effort in the area was directed at saving structures and by all accounts the efforts were successful.
In the aftermath of the fire, affected cattle producers are facing significant challenges. The burned area measures roughly 50 miles wide and 20 miles long. On the average, producers lost about 15 percent of their herd. However, some producers lost much, much more. Hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of fence will have to be rebuilt. Not only were wooden fence posts burnt to the ground, the fire was so hot that most of the wire is now extremely brittle and unusable. Charred pieces of wood are all that remain of working pens and hay sheds. Blowing sand from once productive rangeland now covers ranch roads, rendering them impassable to pickup trucks. Conditions like these are what ranchers face every day as a result of the fire.
When asked what could be done to help, ranchers in the area said that fencing supplies, building materials and hay are needed, but the biggest single thing ranchers in the area need is grass. In this semi-arid region that receives an average annual rainfall of around 16 inches and where stocking rates are measured in cows per section, even an exceptional spring will not allow even limited grazing until the fall. In areas of “loose soil,” blowing sand and erosion present a huge problem. These areas could take years to return to productive grazing lands, and little can be done to speed the process. Only time will mend this fragile ecosystem.
Area ranchers have a difficult decision to make — either stay in and tough it out or sell out and try to do it again next year. For some ranchers, such as registered Hereford breeder and Fightin' Texas Aggie Bill Breeding of Miami, selling out is not an option. Breeding has spent years developing his herd of Hereford cattle and to sell them at market prices would be devastating to his operation. But, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Decades ago, the United States government had the foresight to recognize that this area of productive farmland is also extremely fragile and very susceptible to drought and erosion. Much of the land in the area was placed in the Conservation Reserve Program commonly known as CRP and administered by the Farm Service Agency, a branch of the USDA. The FSA has authorized emergency grazing of CRP land in the panhandle of Texas for producers affected by the fire. Current rules for CRP land dictate that grazing or haying of the land can occur once every three years for 120 days. If a landowner chooses to allow their CRP ground to be grazed under this emergency grazing authorization, it will count against their every-third-year grazing allotment.
The emergency authorization also states that grazing of a given CRP tract can only occur for 60 days from the time the grazing permit is issued. This stop gap measure is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of cattle producers affected by the fire for two reasons. First, rangelands affected by the fire will not be able to be stocked until fall, at the earliest, and then only at a limited stocking rate of 25 to 50 percent of pre-fire levels given adequate rainfall. Second, since CRP ground is not in production, the fences and water systems are not maintained. Simple economics dictate that in order for ranchers to make the capital investment needed to erect fences and fix windmills, they would need to have allotted grazing access for at least 12 months. Also, by utilizing CRP land, rangeland affected by the fire can be restocked gradually and the environmental impact of the fire reduced by allowing native grasses to repopulate without the associated impact of livestock grazing.
While it will take government action for emergency exceptions to the CRP rules, there still other ways to help these panhandle ranchers. Producers and industry groups have joined forces through several organizations to provide as much immediate assistance as possible. R-CALF USA and the Independent Cattlemen's Association of Texas have established and launched the Rancher-2-Rancher Relief Fund to assist those affected by the fires. To make a donation, send a tax-deductible check made out to the “Rancher-2-Rancher Relief Fund” and mail it to: Rancher-2-Rancher Relief Fund, P.O. Box 30715, Billings, MT 59107.