‘Pretty Sickening’: Texas Ranchers Face Crippling Losses


Justin Homen kept driving across his vast Texas ranch, but he only found the same bleak scenes: blackened grassland, charred cow carcasses and smoldering debris turned almost entirely to ash.

Then he arrived at the place he thinks of as a hidden oasis: a pond and small lake that, in better times, bask in the emerald glow of looping, leafy trees and tall grass. As he stepped out of the cab of his truck and onto the singed grass, his mutter was nearly drowned out by the wind.

“Pretty sickening.”

On a normal Friday afternoon, he might check on his herd and then come here with an old friend, pour a glass of whiskey and cast a line into the pond. Now, he was facing the realization that almost all of his family’s century-old ranch, a swath of land nearly the size of Manhattan, had been burned this week when the largest fire in state history tore through the Texas Panhandle.

Mr. Homen, 41, finds himself among scores of cattle ranchers across the Great Plains looking at an uncertain future. Thousands of animals have been killed, and outbuildings and homes have been destroyed in fires across Texas, Nebraska and Kansas. The Smokehouse Creek fire, near Mr. Homen’s ranch outside the town of Pampa, has expanded to more than one million acres and threatens to grow further this weekend with windy, dry conditions expected.

The fire’s consequences are far-reaching even for ranchers whose cattle were largely spared, like Mr. Homen. Scorched grazing lands means their surviving cows may starve if left alone. For many, the tasks ahead feel gargantuan: bury dead cattle, mend broken fences, distribute bales of hay trucked in from hundreds of miles away.

“It’ll end ranching for some,” said Tate Rosenbusch, who met Mr. Homen in middle school when the two would show livestock together and who worked for a time at an agriculture-focused bank. “There’s some that will not be able to get back into it — either they’re just emotionally or financially drained.”

And starting over will not be easy. Cattle prices have shot up amid dry conditions in recent years, meaning the idea of replacing the dead cows is a nonstarter for many ranchers.

Interest rates are also high, making loans less appealing, and many ranchers are facing a stack of bills this time of year as they prepare for spring planting, plowing fields, buying fertilizer and seeds and shelling out for gas for their equipment.

“It’s never a good time, but right now is a really, really bad time,” said Mr. Rosenbusch, 41, who owns a farm and also helps run a trucking and towing company.

How soon the land recovers is largely out of their hands.

“It’s all dependent on rain at this point,” Mr. Rosenbusch said. “Unfortunately, none of that is in your control. You can do all the rain dancing you want to.”

The Smokehouse Creek fire began on Monday and spread quickly in the sparsely populated areas near Texas’ border with Oklahoma.

Mr. Homen and Mr. Rosenbusch cut open fences, hoping the cattle would be able to escape if necessary. When the flames arrived, they drove out in trucks with water tanks to try to beat back the flames. For a time, they kept the fire at bay, but then the wind shifted. All was lost.

“We worked our ass off on it for 30 hours and saved maybe 100 acres,” Mr. Homen said. He and Mr. Rosenbusch recalled how they would put out a fire on a patch of land only to turn around a few minutes later and see it ablaze again.

Now, many ranches are strewn with dead and injured animals.

For those who lost a large number of animals — some lost hundreds — the immediate problem is figuring out how to bury them all. A state contractor, Lone Star Hazmat, was trawling the roadways this week, loading onto a truck dozens of dead cows that had made it to the road before perishing.

And even for the cattle that survived, Mr. Homen said, the fire and smoke could cause health problems down the road or lead pregnant cows to give birth prematurely.

That could mean a financial hit a year from now if ranchers have fewer yearlings to sell, either for reproduction or to meat producers. And for now, there is the urgent problem of keeping the cows fed with no grass to munch on.

On Friday, Mr. Homen and Mr. Rosenbusch visited several dozen cows on farmland that Mr. Homen operates near his ranch. The cows had been eating the remains of corn and sorghum harvested last fall, and the fire passed them by. Mr. Homen said he usually moves the cows down to his ranch by this time of year but hadn’t gotten around to it yet, a delay that had ended up saving the lives of many of the cows.

The cows mooed and jostled with each other as Mr. Homen dumped cubes of feed from his truck for them to eat. For now, ranchers are largely relying on truckloads of hay brought in by generous farmers, much of them from many miles away.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Sam Schafer, a rancher who described himself as semiretired and who was marveling at the stacks of hay being dropped off this week. Donning a cowboy hat and a white button-down shirt, he was helping to deliver bales a few at a time to ranches in the area, including Andy Jahnel’s.

Mr. Jahnel said he had fled his home as the fire raced toward his property, which has been in his family since the turn of the 20th century.

“I left because there was a cloud of smoke like a tornado coming,” Mr. Jahnel said. “Just dark black.”

Of his 1,120 acres, only about 25 percent remained unscathed, he said. All 13 of his horses had miraculously survived.

The temporary solution of delivering hay is one that will not last for many ranchers. Mr. Homen and Mr. Rosenbusch said that after the donations stop coming, individually feeding cattle — rather than having them graze — would not make economic sense.

“If you have to feed them every bite, they’re going to eat and you’re going to go broke,” Mr. Rosenbusch said.

As Mr. Homen surveyed the property on Friday, he and Mr. Rosenbusch tried to find any positive they could in the destruction that the fire had wrought. The fire moved so quickly that it had burned only around the ranch’s structures. And, if they were lucky, the inferno probably had also taken out the moles that chewed through electric lines and gotten rid of those invasive Russian olive trees.

But the path ahead felt heavy.

“Find as many cows as we can and go on,” Mr. Homen said. “In this business, you can’t just throw your hands up and walk away. You’re married to it.”

Mitch Smith contributed reporting.


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