Here we are, sitting in the middle of the worst and shortest haying season I’ve ever seen. In some ways that doesn’t mean much since I’ve only been on our ranch for 12 years, except Favorite Farmer and everyone else around here says it’s the worst one they’ve ever seen. When you talk amongst the community, a lot of comparisons are being made to the 1980s when drought dried everything up and made the whole farming/ranching thing a massive struggle.
Between a dry winter, late freezes into the end of May and no measurable moisture to speak of, things are not looking good. Our barley looks okay but is dwindling quickly with no rain. The wheat is so short we’re not even sure it will have enough growth to get any straw. When we step into a hay field, we have to decide if it’s worth cutting, as it would only amount to a third of a normal year’s hay crop at best; would it would be better to keep on the stem so our cows have something to eat this summer/fall? Assuming they can out-eat the grasshoppers, who have so graciously decided to call our fields their home.
We’re not the only ones. I’m guessing if you’re reading this and you’re on the southern or eastern half of our state, the same thing is happening to you. This drought and resulting “time to panic” is wide-spread, which in some weird way is comforting to know we’re all in the same boat. In other ways, like trying to find hay, it is really disconcerting. Everywhere I go, people are talking about the current state of the range. They are asking if we have extra hay available—no, do you? We are trying to be optimistic that rains will finally come that could possibly produce a second cutting and be enough to let our grain crops hang on. I’ve heard creative plans in order to avoid selling cows, but in the end, nobody really knows what will happen or how long this new weather pattern—which has slowly been sneaking our way over the last couple of years—is going to stick around. We’ve been lucky up until this year and even until a couple of weeks ago. We were hopeful we would be able to pull out another successful hay crop, then an antelope walked through and Favorite Farmer turned to me and said, “That alfalfa is only up to its ankles, right? I’m not imagining things?” Yep, that’s correct.
This whole living-off-the-land thing is not for the faint of heart. Don’t tell Favorite Farmer but sometimes, when things get very bad, I find myself thinking about the times before I got married and moved to the middle of nowhere; when I was naïve to how important weather can be. This is one of those times. I remember very fondly the days when the only time I looked at the weather was if I was going out on the town and needed to know whether or not to take a jacket, or when I would get irritated that it was raining while I was trying to enjoy a camping trip with friends. Oh, to have my head in the clouds again, how worry-free that was. I still occasionally run into people who don’t give the weather a second thought, but these days it seems everyone is aware of the scary situation plaguing the western (and some mid-western) states.
I can’t say I’ve ever been in this type of scenario before where we’re literally watching our crops dry up and discussing selling our heifers, the group we’ve painstakingly selected to carry on the genetics we’ve worked so hard to pinpoint, the same ones we’ve hand-fed cake to since they were weaned from their mamas. It isn’t fun and I hope this uncertain time passes everyone quickly, that this is one of those “remember when” stories we’ll look back on not so fondly.
No matter what happens, though, you don’t have to go far to be reminded of how much tragedy there is in the world, how fragile life is, how much worse things could be. It’s easy to get caught with our blinders on and to find ourselves totally consumed with the parts of our lives we can’t control and what we can’t change. When we rely on the land, our cows and the health of both those things for our livelihoods, it’s hard to see past the vacant hay corrals and crispy crops that surround us, but there’s so much more to life, so much to be thankful for. It’s more important than ever during trying times like these to put our heads up, open our eyes and see all the good we have. In the end it doesn’t matter how good the farming side of our existence is, it’s the people we surround ourselves with and the relationships we have that make our lives worth living. Without that, everything else can go up in dust.
Mariah Shammel ranches in Hilger with her husband, four active kids and variety of cows, dogs and other critters.
Thomas Paine may have written “These are the times that try men’s souls” regarding the American Revolution and patriotism, but those words can certainly be applied to times of bad drought in farm and ranch country. There is help for experiencing mental health issues. Visit American Farm Bureau’s Farm State of Mind website, and Montana State University’s Ag Producer Stress Resource Clearinghouse,