Four County Fire producers show resilience

Kansas farmers and ranchers have enough challenges without a fickle Mother Nature and a pre-Christmas windstorm and wildfire left them with a lengthy rebuilding process.

The gifts and outpouring of support from people, whether in the local communities or from many miles away, were not lost on them in the aftermath of the Dec. 15 Four County Fire. More than 165,000 acres burned as derecho-like winds fanned wildfires that swept the countryside in the northwest Kansas counties of Russell, Ellis, Rooks and Osborne counties.

“It was fireball after fireball and away she went,” said Kirk Dickinson, whose operation is about 12 miles north of Walker along the Saline River valley.

He lost about 50 head of cattle as the evaluation process continued after the first of the year. He runs about 700 cows year-round on grass so his normal strategy is to stockpile grass and to rotate the cows and calves on the dry grass. That changed on Dec. 15.

“We don’t feed any hay to the cows. It’s just dry grass and protein,” Dickinson said. “We’ve lost all our good calving pastures since they were in the draws and river bottoms.”

Dickinson is not alone. “Nobody had a good crop up here to begin with,” he said.

His stockpiled grass also took a hit. A change in the direction of the wind allowed Dickinson to save about half of his grass and he was able to ship out about 300 head elsewhere to take pressure off the operation.

Chris Pelton, who lives about 1.5 miles south of Paradise, lost over 120 cows, which is about a third of his herd. The family’s house, built just 15 years ago, was destroyed as was his shop, barns, storage buildings and equipment. When people ask him what he could save, Pelton says, “Before I left, my wife had called me and asked ‘could you get my engagement ring out?’ I got that for her.”

The fire moved so fast it was difficult to stay and try to retrieve other important personal and business items. He noted that firetrucks also burned up in the fast-moving wildfire.

“We are thankful to be out and alive,” Pelton said.

“We can rebuild our house and we can rebuild our buildings,” he said, adding it was tough on his children because they lost all of what they were familiar with. “We have our lives and we’re planning on rebuilding in the same basic location.”

The current drought made this fire exceptionally difficult, as he noted that drought conditions are nothing new to western Kansas farmers and ranchers. “We have fires all the time with 30-miles-per-hour winds. We can get those taken care of without a huge loss. What do you do when winds blow like that?”

Ken Stielow, with Bar S Ranch about 7 miles south of Paradise, lost about 200 head of cattle that included 50 head of fall pairs that were about to receive implants and nine bulls.

“The losses could have been worse for other cattle in the herd but fortunately they were on stalks or wheat stubble,” Stielow said. “We have neighbors whose losses were a much higher percentage and my heart goes out to them.”

One neighbor had 70 cows and only four survived. He heard the story of another neighbor who only had 50 head survive out of a herd of 250 head of cattle.

Industry contacts from his kids from their days in cattle shows and through his own contacts will help to rebuild his herd. Those colleagues have also helped Stielow with different locations to take the cattle to and he was able to rent a quarter of pastureland.

“We’ve had a fantastic group of cowboys who helped us,” Stielow said. “It’s amazing how many people have reached out.”

Also the rebuilding of fences and restoring scorched pasture land will take time, he said.

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Dickinson continues to have optimism. He had insurance on his cattle. “You do with it what you can.”

LIP availability

Producers who experienced damages of hundreds of thousands of dollars know that not all of the damages will be reimbursable.

Todd Barrows, an agricultural program specialist with the United States Department of Agriculture and Farm Service Agency, Manhattan, Kansas, provided an overview of the Livestock Indemnity Program and Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program, which provide for payment based on 75% of a fair market value on the livestock as determined by Commodity Credit Corporation. That goes for livestock owners and eligible contract growers.

The payment rates for eligible beef owners: adult bull—$1,195.31 per head; cow—$919.47 per head. For a nonadult, weighing less than 250 pounds—$163.15 per head; 250 to 399 pounds—$441.45 per head; 400 to 799 pounds—$609.53 per head; 800 pounds or more—$1,015.88 per head. However, unborn and aborted calves are not reimbursable, which makes it tough on the operations.

“You try to cater all the information you can,” Pelton said. “From the FSA to our state. I’m familiar with a lot of it.”

The process will take time, he said.

“We are going to rebuild. What else can you do? I have a son in college and someday he may want to come back. It was something I have done for 40 years. I could not see myself retiring. I love doing it too much and breeding cattle is something I have done for a long time. I will keep plugging away at it.

“When you lose inventory like that it is tough, but we’ll find a way,” Pelton said.

Drawing on resources

Russell County farmer and rancher Warren Gfeller said the producers face tough challenges but they can draw on many resources and develop a recovery plan to face the current needs but also for the long term.

“It’s not just rebuilding our herd but it’s replacing pets, houses, facilities, windbreaks and shelter belts,” Gfeller said. “Something like a shelter belt it takes 15 to 20 years for them to be mature. Even if there are funds available to re-establish them it’s going to be 15 to 20 years before they are useful. In the meantime, you need those windbreaks. So what’s the temporary solution?”

Finding tin and building temporary shelters is an example of a short-term solution to provide protection for livestock.

Even with the many programs there will sit be gaps and that’s a burden producers face, he said.

In the long term, rebuilding the herd is going to take a long time, too, Gfeller said. “It’s not just a bunch of cows. People have worked on their breed composition and the traits they emphasize in their age distribution to go with the calving window. You cannot replace all of that overnight.”

Many other important details that make the producer successful have to be recreated, he said.

Replacing work and personal vehicles will take time and that will be a chore as supply chain problems and other challenges have limited not only the availability of new vehicles but used ones.

“It’s been a problem since the onset of COVID and is compounded by other issues, but when you have a fleet of trucks and you have to replace more than one it’s hard to do and every task can become a daunting task,” he said. “People who have lost their homes and we don’t have a lot of builders in this part of the country so it’s going to take time to find the right builder and get that home built.”

In many cases the home serves as the headquarters so it has a dual purpose. Many producers like to calve near the home operation but if they have to rent a house and drive 10 to 15 miles that adds stress, Gfeller said. The cleanup from the fire will also take time.

Ask for help

He also believes producers need to make sure their mental health is in order as part of their rebuilding plan.

“Keep your focus on your long-term objective and the objective has to be to rebuild. And when things get tough—and they will—just make a call to a neighbor. You can’t be too proud. We all want to get back to our normal routines and our busy lives but we’re never too busy to help neighbor who has a need.”

Gfeller also advised working closely with USDA, state, local organizations, ask as many questions as necessary and be patient with the entire process. Livestock and farm organizations are also offering resources that producers can tap into, Gfeller said.

“You have to take advantage of every opportunity that’s available in terms of funding and other resources. These government programs are there for a reason,” he said.

Cost sharing programs are another resource, he said.

Producers need to set time aside to keep up with programs and complete required documentation. The local FSA and Natural Resources Conservation Service agencies are going to be very busy but they will work hard to help producers. Farmers and ranchers can help them by getting applications and documentation to those agencies as quickly as they can to expedite the process of getting monies into their hands.

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].