By Frank Morris
Harvest Public Media
Two big, rapid-fire snowstorms belted Kansas in late February, dropping more than two feet of snow. They caused thousands of accidents, all kinds of hardships, but produced some very broad smiles in farm country because in a place as dry as Kansas has been lately, a blizzard can be a blessing.
If your job is taking care of 450 cows – almost half of whom have either just given birth to calves or are about to – in Kansas, you’ve probably had a rough go of it this year. Drought has crippled the land and tried the patience of farmers and ranchers across the Midwest.
Kirk Sours, a rancher from Tonganoxie, Kan., has battled the drought for about a year. Covered in layers of heavy canvas work clothes with a big, gray mustache and cowboy hat to match, Sours chopped at a frozen pond with an old axe on a recent February day.
“(I’m) keeping the ponds open so they have something to drink,” Sours said. “This pond’s in pretty decent shape. I’ve got 16 dry ponds on the ranch.”
And that’s most of them. For Sours, the drought started last spring and hasn’t let up.“Our pastures here, a lot of it, looks dead when the snow’s gone,” Sours said.
Drought baked his soil to bone-dry dust, so Sours has been forced to buy scarce and very expensive hay. Now, with snow covering what grass there is, and the cows rapidly turning out other little mouths-to-feed, he’s using much more.
“Like to keep a lot of extra hay out, to give them a dry place to lay, during the night,” Sours said. “And especially if they want to lay down and have a baby some time, they’ve got a nice dry place to do it. It gets expensive, yeah”
But for all this, Sours is pretty sweet on the snow.
“It makes for a little harder work, but in scope of the drought, we’re just, almost giddy about having this snow,” Sours said.
Because the snow melt will start to quench these pastures. And if you think Sours is happy, you should call a Kansas wheat farmer, one out west, where the drought is now entering its third year.
“I was beginning to wonder if, if it could rain,” said Scott Van Allen, a farmer who hails from Sumner County Kansas, which proudly boasts it’s the “Wheat Capitol of the World.”
“This was the first time I haven’t minded going out and shoveling my sidewalks off,” Van Allen said. “I had a smile the whole time I was doing it.”
The snows brought the first real moisture to Van Allen’s wheat crop since he planted it last fall. Still, it’s not all rosy. Jim Shroyer, a wheat expert at Kansas State University, says he’s asked all the time if the storms broke the drought.
“No,” Shroyer said, “but it’s better than a sharp poke in the eye.”
Shroyer said it’s been so dry for so long that it would take about eight feet of snow to bring soil back to normal in western Kansas, where “normal” is pretty dry. So the snow wasn’t so much a lifesaver for the wheat crop, so much as it was a stay of execution.
“This wheat crop is going to be going hand to mouth from this point on,” Shroyer said.
For now, though, Sours has had to deal with his huge, four-wheel-drive pickup getting stuck in the mud. The snow is melting, and the ranch is going to get very messy.
“I have learned one thing over the last 35 years of doing this,” Sours said. “You don’t cuss the mud. I’d much rather have mud than dust.”
And for now mud it is in Kansas, after the snow melts. And come April, maybe green.
Frank Morris is the news director at KCUR in Kansas City and the executive supervisor of Harvest Public Media. Harvest Public Media is a network of reporters of Public Radio stations in Missouri and Iowa. The network’s reports are regularly linked at the Richmond News Facebook page and can also be accessed at www.harvestpublicmedia.org.