Sunday, April 14, 2024

Big fires messed up the Texas cow business, and it might take a while for things to get better

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When Shane Pennington, a 56-year-old cattle farmer near Canadian, Texas, first saw big flames from a huge wildfire coming towards the ranch he looks after, his main worry wasn’t his house. It was his animals.

Pennington told CNN he went back to the ranch to find about 50 cattle dead, with mother cows desperately looking for their lost calves.

As the flames went through the ranch, they caused really painful injuries, burning off some animals’ tails and blinding others. “It just burned all the hair off them,” he said. “Their feet are coming off. Their hooves, they’re bloody.”

Some of them are “cows that I raised right here,” he said. “It’s just hard to see them burn up.”

Pennington is one of many cattle farmers whose lives have been ruined by the Smokehouse Creek Fire, the biggest wildfire in Texas history, which has burned over a million acres of land across the panhandle.

The state has about 4.1 million beef cattle, according to David P. Anderson, professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University. And more than 85% are in the panhandle, according to Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.

A burned car and home following the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Fritch, Texas, US, on Friday, March 1, 2024. Texas Governor Greg Abbott said as many as 500 structures such as houses and barns have been damaged or destroyed in the largest wildfire in state history. Photographer: Jordan Vonderhaar/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In addition to the short-term effects of cattle killed and seriously injured by the flames, there will be lasting consequences, as herds cultivated for years struggle to recover and traumatized cows fail to reproduce.

Speaking with CNN’s Omar Jimenez on CNN Newsroom Saturday, Miller asked for donations and prayers for Texas residents who have lost homes and livestock in the wildfires.

“There’s no grass, there’s no water for the livestock,” Miller stressed. “We’ve lost over 3,000 head, which is a very small number, that will double or triple easily. We’ve got cattle that we’re going to have to put down because of the damage to their hooves, their udders. We’ll just have to put them down.”

For Pennington, the fire has been both financially and emotionally devastating.

“Your job is to keep them alive, not to destroy them,” he said. “It’s tough.”

Death and destruction hit iconic industry
The cattle business in Texas is worth an estimated $15.5 billion, making it by far the most profitable agricultural commodity in the state, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture. There are millions of cattle across the panhandle specifically, with some counties counting more cattle than people among its residents, the department reported.

Aerial view of wildfires in Texas, U.S., February 27, 2024 in this picture obtained from social media. Patrick Ryan/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

Brandon Meier, a local rancher, volunteer fire chief, and agricultural science teacher at a high school in the panhandle town of Canadian, described the raging inferno as a “monster.”

Seeing the way the flames transformed the landscape was “surreal,” he told CNN.

“I’ve seen this country, how it is with grass and sagebrush and cattle roaming out there, and the next day we come down here; it’s a barren desert,” he said.

In addition to damage to their hooves and eyes, many of the cattle are also suffering from smoke inhalation which can cause fatal pneumonia, Meier said. And udder burns have made it impossible for some cows to nurse their calves, requiring them to be bottle-fed with milk substitutes.

The loss of life represents a massive loss of income for ranchers, he said.

“A lot of these families are ranching families, and that’s their livelihood out there” in the panhandle, he said. “And we rely on that income … Our job isn’t 8 to 5. It’s 24/7, holidays, everything.”

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