It’s Time to Ask: What If It Never Rains?

Published on: 15:49PM Jan 10, 2013

In Elmer Kelton’s iconic novel The Time It Never Rained, we read: "Moving across a bare, ashen pasture and remembering how green it used to be, Charlie found himself almost wondering if it was worth the fight. Who knew how long it might be until it rained again?"

Nobody has captured the ethos of drought as well as Kelton did in his story about rancher Charlie Flagg’s battle against the West Texas drought of the ’50s. Not many people remember how bad that drought was. I remember because my dad had chosen 1951 to return to farming, hocking everything he’d built and saved since the Dust Bowl years. We kids wore flour-sack shirts and got underwear and socks for Christmas.

My mom had to report every egg she sold to the Federal Housing Administration. And she was, uncharacteristically, short of temper some days.

During the 1930s—the years of the Dust Bowl, so well documented in Ken Burns’ recent PBS special— average rainfall in Amarillo was more than 17". From 1952 through 1956, it averaged little more than 12". Even with those 12", it was an epic drought. But in 2011, Amarillo received just 7.01". As of this writing, it looks like the city will come in under 12" in 2012. And, as Kelton would say, who knows when it will rain again?

Hard decisions. Prompted by Derrell Peel’s recent series "Can We Rebuild the Beef Cowherd?" I sat down to write this column about the prospects for a recovery. Peel recognizes this as a historic drought. I wonder how it will affect beef supplies and—as people react to record prices—demand.

I can keep my cows through the winter, thanks to $200 hay and pasture leased from a neighbor who keeps it for hunting. But I’m hauling my calves to town tomorrow, three or four months too early. Their wheat pasture is gone. I can’t get them to pencil at a feedyard, given corn prices. And I had a depressing conversation with a friend about where we might be able to fi nd green pastures to preserve seedstock.

I haven’t had as much rain in the last two years as Amarillo has. When I walk my pastures, I wonder how much of that grass is dead forever. I wonder how long it will take to come back after the rains come. I lie awake at night, wondering if I should hope for rain that isn’t in the long-term forecast or haul my cows to town before everyone else does.

I can’t imagine how my parents made it through the ’50s. Or how some of my neighbors, who have more at stake than me, cope. To have hundreds of cows—your whole life’s work, in many cases— teetering? Knowing that if you can just make it until the rains come, it promises to be better than ever, but that if you do sell, you may never get started again. Thousands have already decided.

If the rains don’t come, more will decide this year. Peel estimates the U.S. herd will be down as much as half a million this year. Beef prices, as well as calf and cow prices, will reach all-time highs.

It will be great for those who ride it out. But most of us will be like Charlie Flagg, I fear—wondering if it’s worth the fight, and how long it might be until it rains again.