Missouri cattle farmer struggles through Midwest drought

A farmer feeds corn to his cattle on July 16, 2012 near Ashley, Illinois. Many farmers in the Midwest have been selling off their cattle because of the lack of available feed in the drought-stricken region.

Cattle ranchers in the Midwest face some tough decisions as their pastures bake with little to no rain. Many cattle ranchers are asking themselves if they can afford to feed their full herd, or if they should sell their cattle, perhaps earlier than they'd like. 

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared many farming communities disaster zones, including the entire state of Missouri. Host Kai Ryssdal talks with Ken Lenox, a fifth-generation cattle rancher in Rolla, Mo. 

Kai Ryssdal: We did some calling around this morning, looking for people to talk to about what's happening on the ground out in the Midwest.

We found a cattle rancher named Ken Lenox. He's 69, lives in Rolla, Mo. Here's the way it went.

Ken Lenox: Hello.

Ryssdal: Mr. Lenox, Kai Ryssdal in Los Angeles. How are you sir?

Lenox: I'm all right today.

Ryssdal: How about tomorrow, that's the question?

Lenox: That's the question [laughs]. We need rain. 

Ryssdal: Yeah, I bet. Tell me about your cows, can you afford to feed them right now with the price of grain going up? 

Lenox: Well if I have to buy feed, I've made a mistake someplace or the weather has turned against me. I'm a grass farmer is what I am, and I sell my grass through my cattle, is one way of looking at it.

Ryssdal: That's a great line, right -- you sell your grass through your cattle. 

Lenox: Yeah, that's what they do with corn, but you better take care of the grass you've got.

Ryssdal: What's it been like down there this past couple of months as this drought has gotten bad?

Lenox: Well, normally the first of April is when there is enough grass, you don't have to feed them anymore.

Ryssdal: So, you turn them out into the pasture.

Lenox: Yeah, we have 60-some different pastures. April went through and we had very little rain, and it's normally one of our wettest months. We always have a drought in July and August, but not in April and May and June. I got no rain at all in the month of June, zero, not even a sprinkle.

Ryssdal: So, what are you going to do?

Lenox: Well, this is not a hobby. Cattle ranching is not a hobby for me, it's not a second career outside of being four years in the Marine Corps in the '60s, this is what I do. And I've spent years building this up, the farm has been in my family since the early 1800's, 1820. 

Ryssdal: Wow. You're not a young man, Mr. Lenox, are you? 

Lenox: No, at my next birthday in a few months, I'll be 70. And my hired man, who's a great fella and everything, he's about six months younger than me. So, we stay in good shape.

Ryssdal: Yeah, I bet. But, if this season turns out not to be a real good one, how many more you got in you?

Lenox: I don't know. I've got four children, and they all took after their mother and made good grades in school so they've got their own careers. They don't want the farm to go any place, but nobody is really interested, so I'm kind of playing it year by year. 

Ryssdal: If you had to sell your cows, what would you get for them?

Lenox: Well the price of a cow is really not bad right now. They are bringing 60 cents a pound for a 1,200 pound cow, you know. But, it's the genetics. You know my bulls cost around $4,000. I keep about 25 on hand at all times, and I've been putting those genetics back into the herd. 

Ryssdal: So if you have to slaughter them, that whole thing goes away.

Lenox: Yes, you lose it all in one year. Hopefully that won't happen, if we get some rain in the fall, even the latter part of August -- I can make it, from what I've got stockpiled and stuff into September. Then past September, I'm kind of guessing. 

Ryssdal: Well, fingers crossed. Ken Lenox, we got him in the Missouri Farm Bureau, Phelps County, Mo. Mr. Lenox, thanks very much.

Lenox: Thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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