Drought hurts Southwest Kansas dairy farms

HUGOTON, Kansas - Volatility in the dairy market is sending western Kansas dairy farmers on an emotional roller coaster. However, something else is forcing them to make significant sacrifices.

On Moscow Dairy farm just outside Hugoton, Kansas, there is interesting dichotomy. 3,500 cows do three things there: eat, provide milk, and eat more. In fact, they eat so much, many noses are often covered in feed. There's so much feed there, bailed hay stacks tower above every barn in sight.

"We have to do everything we can to keep them comfortable and healthy," said Jody Wacker, one of the farm's managing partners.

However in the same breath, Wacker said something amazing.

"We are slimming down," Wacker said.

Their region is suffering through exceptional, crop-killing drought. In 74 years, retired crop farmer Paul Grewell said, "I've never seen anything like it."

Along with corn, wheat and Milo, grass is dying. It means cows increasingly rely on feed for food.

For Wacker's dairy farm, feed is 60 percent to 70 percent of operating costs. In less than a year, hay prices have risen 80 percent, Wacker said. When you consider farmers in Oklahoma's panhandle and Texas have greater needs for feed, demand is high.

"We don't have to buy more feed," Wacker said. "But, the feed we buy just costs more."

Another significant concern lies beneath their soil in the Ogallala Aquifer. It is the region's main water supply. No one knows how much longer it will last. So there are strict requirements on water usage.

"Many farmers are using all of their water allocation this year and they may not grow a crop next year," Wacker said. "So, we're using the water three times, at least (on our farm) trying to be good stewards of the water that way."

The same water used to cool milk, cleans barns and waters fields. It is part of Wacker's "slimming down" process. To compensate for spending more on hay, she and her husband are streamlining farm operations, saving money for their cows.

"That's our job to make sure we take care of them at all costs," Wacker said.

It's an enormous price farmers and ranchers expect to pay for years to come.

"The effects of this drought are going to be long term," Wacker said.

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