Looking at wildfire by the numbers

By Jennifer M. Latzke in the High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal

It’s difficult for people who aren’t in the thick of the flames to grasp the complete picture of devastation that wildfires leave in their ashes.

Yes, the costs to the heart are numbing. But, the costs to the balance sheet are an injury that can last long after the burns heal. And can be just as devastating to the health of the family ranch, and the communities that depend on those businesses. Let’s put this into perspective that our neighbors might understand.

Livestock losses

The fires happened at the height of the spring calving season, the beginning of March, when cows are turned out onto grass. In Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated cattle losses at 15,000 head. In Texas, 1,900 head of hogs were also lost when the fires burned a swine operation.

A mature, bred cow, not yet calved, could bring about $1,850 (according to the Feb. 22 USDA sale report from the Farmers and Ranchers Livestock Commission Co., Salina, Kansas.) Losing just 10 bred cows, a single rancher just lost $18,500, or the cost of a used car.

At $2,150 per commercial cow-calf pair (according to the same Salina sale report) a producer who lost 50 pairs—meaning the calves are on the ground—in this fire is out $107,500. That’s about the price of a home in Ford County, Kansas.

Just one registered purebred cow-calf pair might bring roughly $2,300. So imagine losing 500 head from a historic registered herd. That’s in the $1.15 million ballpark, and almost half of the total expenditures budgeted for the Ashland School District in 2015-16. This district serves about 200 students.

For the calves that survived, ranchers had to make a choice. They could either:

a) humanely euthanize calves if the mother cows were too badly injured from the fire to nurse, or

b) take on the task of bottle-feeding calves for the next two months.

A 25-pound bag of calf milk replacer can cost from $30 to $40 at retail. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates a calf will use about 70 pounds of milk replacer in eight weeks until weaning. The milk replacer cost alone could be $84 to $112 per bottle calf. And that doesn’t account for the labor, the calf starter feed rations and the added veterinary costs of a bottle calf. Multiply just that replacer cost by 100 head, and a rancher has to choose between spending $8,400 to $11,200 to save just a portion of one generation of his ranch’s genetics, or walk away from that and start all over. Fortunately for many ranchers, an enterprising group of 4-Hers in Meade, Kansas, stepped up to help care for orphaned calves, and donations are rolling in to help cover the costs.

Other immediate costs

Pasture fence (5 to 6 strand barbed wire) costs $3,000 to $10,000 per mile to replace. As of April 4, the USDA estimated that the cost of fencing destroyed in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas exceeded $64 million. In just the northern Texas Panhandle, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service has reported an estimated $6.1 million to replace and repair about 975 miles of fence. That’s just about the same number of miles as a round trip from Amarillo, Texas to Topeka, Kansas.

1.6 million acres of pasture across the beef producing regions of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Colorado is now unable to be grazed for up to a year or more. That’s an area larger than the entire state of Delaware, which is about 1.23 million acres.

The Kansas State University Department of Agricultural Economics gave its 2016 Kansas Pasture Cash Rent estimates as $11.50 per acre in Clark County, Kansas. Clark County had about 461,000 acres burn, or more than 60 percent of the county, at a rental replacement cost of about $5.3 million.

Ranchers are still tabulating the amount of hay bales and feed burned up in the fires. Texas AgriLife has estimated about $1 million in feed was burned up in the state’s portion of the wildfires. That was calculated based on 30 pounds of consumption per day per animal for a 60-day period in the fire area. Fortunately the amount of hay being donated by convoys from other states grows every day.

Texas AgriLife said it’s difficult to get a hard count on the amount of hay delivered to the three livestock supply points it established just in the Panhandle. But it is estimated more than 20,000 bales of hay were delivered to or distributed, according to Danny Nusser, AgriLife Extension regional program leader, Amarillo. At one point agents started sending convoys directly to ranches to unload, or redirected convoys to Oklahoma or Kansas points. USDA Market News Service reported April 11 that Minnesota fair quality large round bales of alfalfa were selling for $60 to $75 per ton, putting a rough figure of about $1.2 to $1.5 million in donated hay to Texas alone. That doesn’t account for the fuel and labor donated by each hay convoy coming into the southern Plains.

Long-term losses

Other costs yet to be determined but likely to be just as impactful include: Veterinary care for the surviving livestock over the next 12 months; loss of reproductive health of surviving bulls and cows; lost infrastructure and equipment on farms, ranches and cities in the path of the fires; and costs to rural and volunteer fire departments who responded from across the three-state region.

It will be months before final amounts are determined as farmers and ranchers sift through the ashes and document their losses for government relief programs and for charitable funds that have been established to aid them in their recovery efforts. But looking at the millions of dollars in preliminary tallies of lost livestock, grazing land, infrastructure and future earnings, it will be years before ranchers become whole again after this season of wildfires.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620.227.1807 or jlatzke@hpj.com. This story was originally posted by the High Plains Journal.

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