EL RENO — It sounded like toothpicks being snapped. One after another.
As Fred Reuter talked about the effects of drought on his farm west of El Reno, he kept breaking twigs off a dead weed that stood about hip high.
He did so without really thinking about it at first.
The 60-year-old producer lives in Canadian County, which the U.S. Drought Monitor lists among Oklahoma counties experiencing exceptional drought, the worst of category.
Finding dead vegetation, unfortunately, isn't much of a chore in many areas of Oklahoma.
However, Fred was standing in the bottom of an 18-foot-deep pond. Instead of water, it's filled with weeds and a few grasshoppers.
“Think about this, when this pond went dry, these weeds weren't here,” he said, and then snapped another twig. “So, this weed's had enough time to grow about 3 feet tall, die and dry. That's how long it's been dry. We have three ponds on this place and we haven't been able to run cattle on it for two years with no water. All we have in these three is a 10-foot puddle in part of one of them.”
His story is shared by so many. Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor report showed all of Oklahoma in a severe to exceptional drought. The report also showed 46 percent of the contiguous U.S. falls within the severe to exceptional categories.
Fred's the third of four generations to have been born and raised in central Oklahoma. It's one thing for him to say he's seeing things of frightful proportions for the first time. But it really scares him when his father, Wayne Reuter, makes statements along those lines.
“There's a creek just over here that's run year-round ever since I can remember,” the 85-year-old said. “It's dry, hasn't run in over a year now.”
More than numbers
The Oklahoma Mesonet station for El Reno is located at Fort Reno, a little less than 10 miles from Fred's farm. From April 1 to Thursday, that site had received 8.2 inches of rain. That is 8 inches below normal.
In addition, El Reno had seen 31 days above 100 degrees and 65 days above 90 degrees as of Friday.
And don't forget what occurred before that. With only 18.5 inches falling from Oct. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2011, the precipitation recorded at El Reno was 16.4 inches below normal, according to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. Going across the pasture, Fred pointed down and said, “Two years ago that pond was full. Now, it doesn't hardly even look like a pond it's got so much vegetation.”
“This is life-changing, not just mind-boggling,” Fred said.
Rain followed by rain
If Fred didn't have a small feedlot on the family's farm, his situation would be even worse right now, he said.
But the cost of feeding those cattle in confinement continues to rise.
At the peak of the cost last year, he was paying $280 a ton on commodities like soy hulls, dry distillers grain and the like.
“This year, the same commodities are at $330 (per ton) right now,” Fred said. “The drought intensity has increased, but also the drought area has increased in the United States.
“That puts more pressure on our commodity prices and our hay prices.”
There was a little break between the two droughts, he said. But the rains weren't enough to bring runoff into the ponds. And the part of his wheat that he baled for hay he hoped would last for two years. Now he expects it'll be a stretch to last for little more than a year.
Fred and his wife, Becky, have two children and three grandchildren. Looking across the empty pasture, he said, “I've done this all my life. I'm 60 years old.”
This is his livelihood. And he's not willing to give it up, at least not easily.
“If the time comes, we'll make the hard decisions,” he said, “but for now, we'll just wait for rains followed by more rains.
“It'll take several to get us out of this, I imagine. So, we'll hope and we'll pray.”