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Ranchers struggle with burned cattle, lack of feed after Texas fires

The state says 7,350 animals were killed, mostly livestock. Officials in the counties hit say the death toll could be higher.
Ranchers struggle with burned cattle, lack of feed after Texas fires
Posted at 12:50 PM, Mar 20, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-20 14:55:30-04

The Smokehouse Creek fire tore through more than 1 million acres of Texas panhandle grasslands. It killed two people. The animal casualties are much worse.

Officially, the state says 7,350 animals were killed, mostly livestock. But officials in the counties hit hardest by the fire believe the death toll could be much higher. Thousands of animals either died from the flames or had to be euthanized because of severe injuries.

There are more cattle than people in this part of Texas. Other than fossil fuels, cattle underpin this economy. Donald Hill has unexpected visitors, but they're perfectly welcome on his 4,000-acre ranch in Canadian, Texas.

"They actually are from across the river," Hill said. "When they come out, they get caught in the fire."

About two dozen red Angus cattle from a neighboring ranch joined his herd. Mother cows and their young fled the flames of one of the most destructive fires ever to hit the Texas panhandle.

"They're here and I mean they're getting treated just like their own," Hill said.

Local officials say the flames from this month's panhandle wildfires not only claimed thousands of cattle but severely injured cattle across the hardest hit counties.

"We've got baby calves, their ear tags are wadded up, their skin is singed. There are mother cows and their udders get burned and their udders get black and crusty, they kick the calves off and we've lost a lot of calves that way," Hill said.

The calves can't get vital colostrum, the milk their mothers first give to the newborns, which helps their immune system. Without it, Hill says, the calves may quickly die, and many already have.

Hill keeps his stock in a hilly, brushy patch of Hemphill County. He thinks he lost more than 50% of the land. Officials there believe up to 90% of the grazable acreage burned. In all, the Texas A&M Forest Service says more than 1 million acres of grassland vital to Texas cattle raising has been torched.

This means ranchers need hay to feed their cattle, and multitudes of it.

"It's been a huge three weeks. We've handled almost 20,000 bales of hay here in three weeks," said Andy Holloway, Texas AgriLife Extension agent for Hemphill County.

SEE MORE: Gov. Abbott says Texas wildfires may have destroyed 500 buildings

His normal job connects ranchers and farmers with helpful resources. Lately he's commanding local aid and recovery — donations of animal supplies and money have poured in from around the country.

"All this feed and hay, it's just really like a grain of sand on a beach," Holloway said, adding, "It's just a little bit; it's going to take years of time to get over this and millions and millions of dollars and reinvestment of things to get us back to where we were."

He said it could take grasslands a year or more to heal. The same could be said for legions of burned livestock.

Canadian, Texas, veterinarian Doug Crouch is caring for some of these injured animals like calves suffering burns now suckling on a surrogate mother cow, as their mothers died.

He also is caring for a quarter horse that suffered severe burns to its undercarriage. The danger for these hooved animals is if their legs burn badly their hooves can fall off and not grow back. That means they can't walk. Dr. Crouch and his rancher clients have had to make hard decisions about their herds.

"Most were euthanized on-site or they had burned to death and just succumbed to the fire," Crouch said.

Cattle way outnumber humans in the Texas panhandle: Roughly 10.2 million head of cattle were raised in this region in 2023. 

Holloway said the beef raised and slaughtered from this region amount to more than a quarter of the nation's supply. Beef isn't just what's for dinner. It's a culture.

"Well, for some families, it stopped their way of life. They've lost it all and they won't be back," Holloway said.

For those who stay — they pray the grass grows green, and soon.

"In the long term it depends on the rain. This land needs to not have anything on it right now and it needs to recover, I'm gonna say into mid-summer," Hill said.

Because beef cattle underpin so much of the local economy, the financial reverberations of the catastrophic fire are only starting to be felt.

If you're interested in helping the ranchers of Hemphill County, Andy Holloway said one way is sending cash donations to Canadian Volunteer Fire Department, P.O. Box 300 Canadian, Texas 79014. Write "Rancher Wildfire Relief Fund" on your check memo. The cash will go to purchasing more aid like hay, feed and fencing supplies. New fenceline can cost thousands of dollars per mile. Many ranchers smaller in scale don't have insurance on their head of cattle, so they're facing total losses. They've raised more than $500,000 in relief through small donations, but say the needs will be far greater in the coming months.

Volunteers helping ranchers in Gray County also affected by the wildfire encourage cash donations for fence line rebuilding to be made through the Gebo's Supply Store in Pampa, Texas, at 806-669-1097. Tell the person on the phone you wish to donate cash for the rancher relief effort to help purchase fencing supplies.


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