This year is shaping up to be a very difficult one for those of us in the ranching industry. The year started with great promise, and producers were very optimistic after facing a year of floods, low market prices and difficult trade negotiations. That promise was quickly shattered with the outbreak of Covid-19. Though the markets are slowly beginning to recover, and our country is beginning to open back up, we are faced with a new problem through a vast area of the Great Plains. Drought, all the land in the world is useless unless it rains, or has some form of irrigation to produce. When the word drought comes to mind, many folks think of 2012 and the record heat, multiple fires and lost production that was caused that year. For me I think a little further back, 18 years to be exact to 2002 when I was an eager ranch kid on the hi plains of eastern Colorado. I watched as my family, our friends and neighbors, all struggled to make a living off the land.
For many of us that year, we never stopped feeding hay that summer. Because there was none available locally, numerous truckloads came from Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Everyone culled hard, first with cows that were marginal producers, then later with cows that were older, and finally in some cases, the entire herd went to town. One neighbor who had ranched his entire life actually had a heart attack as the last bunch of cows pulled off his place headed for town, a lifetime of blood, sweat and tears all loaded into a 53’ pot headed for the sale barn. While I remember feeding cows, praying for rain and helping ship cows, my most vivid memory came one afternoon in July that year when a thunderstorm appeared on the horizon. By the time that storm had passed, we had fought 40 some odd prairie fires, and spotted several more that burned themselves out. The following is the story of that memory.
It was sure a scorcher that day, nearly 105 in the shade. By 10 in the morning the cows were fed, the last bunch of hay for which we had overpaid. Weatherman said there’s a chance today, we could sure use a drink, last we had was a half tenth in May.
We broke for lunch around noon, there’s clouds in the west and maybe it’ll storm soon! We’ve prayed for rain long and hard, but time and again the sky won’t let down her guard. Ten minutes after lunch we were out in the shop, it was then when we heard the first thunder pop. We peered outside to see the lightning strike, it was then we heard the tones that gave us all a fright.
We ran to the fire truck we had on loan, Dad hit the starter and she fired with a groan. “3841 on route” Dad called back to dispatch, our “crew of three” was Dad, Jake and me. We headed west towards the smoke we could see, the first flames we got to were on part of the old Box T. I was good help, or so I had been told, as good as could be for a boy who was just 11 years old. Dad drove the truck while Jake rode on the back, I helped navigate, being sure to stay in the back.
Mutual aid was called and there was a truck from Tri-County, they were short a man, so that job went to me. They were 60 miles from their district, and didn’t know the country, I was a local and new every fence, well and tree. We fought fire after fire, and heard tone after tone, I’m sure dispatch thought they were glued to the phone.
We ended up on the Eden ranch down by Highland, when all was told there were thousands of acres of scorched land. Just when we thought we were done for the night and had pulled the trucks in the barn tight, a lightning shriek got the Sandhills to the west of Grandpa Gieck’s.
At four in the morning we pulled the trucks in for the final time, a hefty loss paid for by the rancher’s dime. I’ll never forget that fire filled day, and every time I see lightning I start to pray. So whenever possible I’ll pay my fee, and do my best to support the local V.F.D.
That’s all I’ve got for this time folks. Please pray for rain and do your best to support your local fire department. Until next time God bless and keep tabs on your side of the barbed wire. ❖
Meinzer is a fourth-generation rancher raised on the southeastern plains of Colorado. He and his family live and ranch in Oshkosh, Neb.