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In the Great Plains, there's not much relief in sight from a historic drought

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

More than half of the continental U.S. is in a state of drought, and that's affecting everything from the food we eat to the air we breathe and the water we drink. In one of the hardest-hit regions, the Great Plains, there's not much relief in sight. David Condos of member station High Plains Public Radio has this report.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: It's cattle auction day at the LaCrosse Livestock Market in West Central Kansas. In a nonstop parade, thousands of giant animals trot through one gate and out the other from morning till nightfall. This is a common scene here in the heart of Great Plains cattle country. But what's unusual is just how many calves, heifers and cows are packed into these pens.

FRANK SEIDEL: We're at 390 cows so far. Typically it'd be half that much.

CONDOS: Market owner Frank Seidel says the auction has sold roughly 12,000 more cattle this year than last year. So why are so many ranchers clamoring to thin their herds? Drought, one of the worst on record - it's dried up grazing pastures across the state, leaving cattle with no grass to eat. Seidel says he's never seen it so bad.

SEIDEL: That's everybody. It's everybody. There's no one excluded from it. Everybody's having that, hard choices.

CONDOS: With roughly three-quarters of US cattle now in drought-stricken areas, ranchers from Texas to Montana face those same hard choices. And because so many are selling their cattle months or even years ahead of schedule, there will be a shortage next year, which will mean higher beef prices at the grocery store. In the hallways outside the auction, rancher after rancher tells this story.

MAX PROSE: I had to sell off my calves in August.

LYNN PELTON: Everybody's dealing with shortage of feed.

GENE TILTON: It's dry as it's been since 1955. I was here.

CONDOS: That was Max Prose, Lynn Pelton (ph), and Gene Tilton. G.W. Johnston sold 52 of his cattle here today because there's no grass left on his land.

GW JOHNSTON: Out of 60 years since I've been in the business, I've never run into it this bad.

CONDOS: As climate change fuels more frequent, more intense droughts, it's hard to count all the ways this historically dry, hot, windy year is wreaking havoc. Just ask the person whose job it is to keep track, the National Drought Mitigation Center's Denise Gutzmer.

DENISE GUTZMER: I'm just swamped. It just feels like my days never end.

CONDOS: Deadly wildfires, choking dust storms, decimated harvests - in California, drought is drying up drinking water supplies. In Minnesota, it's killing Christmas trees. Low groundwater levels in Boston threaten the very foundations of the city's buildings. And as farmers in the Great Plains pump more water from underground to make up for a lack of rain, some areas consider new irrigation limits. Nate Jenkins with the Nebraska Natural Resources District says it's a tough ask, but a year like this highlights the need to conserve.

NATE JENKINS: When it gets hot and dry and windy, you know, I think some people kind of shake their head and say, jeez, this is getting kind of ridiculous, isn't it? When is it going to stop?

CONDOS: That is the question on people's minds across the Great Plains as this drought barrels toward the new year and a rare triple-dip La Nina weather pattern is set to deliver a drier-than-average winter. On his family farm in southwest Kansas, Alex Millershaski crouches next to a row of tiny wheat plants no taller than the average lawn. Harsh, relentless winds batter the seedlings with dry, dusty dirt surrounding some of them with small sand dunes.

ALEX MILLERSHASKI: Just imagine yourself as a wheat plant planted in the ground, getting hit in the face all day by that sand. It's so dry.

CONDOS: He says the last time this field got a good rain was May of last year. His family's most recent harvest was the worst in at least five decades. And the prospects for this new crop look discouraging. Nationwide, winter wheat is in the worst condition it's ever been on record, as the war in Ukraine and extreme weather around the world continue to fuel global food shortages.

MILLERSHASKI: If you just dig down with your hand...

CONDOS: But for farmers like Millershaski, there's not much else they can do.

MILLERSHASKI: Just kind of sucks 'cause you're doing your best you can, and, you know, nothing's really working, but, you know, you just kind of got to grind through it and wait for the better days.

CONDOS: His baby wheat plants are holding on for now, barely. But if his farm doesn't get some relief from the dry, windy conditions, they're not going to make it.

For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Gray County, Kan.

MILLERSHASKI: Yeah, that's pretty bad.

MCCAMMON: This report was a collaboration between Harvest Public Media and the Kansas News Service. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Condos
David Condos is the western Kansas correspondent for the Kansas News Service and High Plains Public Radio based in Hays, Kansas. Prior to joining KNS and HPPR, David spent four years covering mental health, addiction, trauma and rural healthcare issues as a freelance producer, reporter and host. His work has been heard on WPLN News, WAMC's 51% and Nashville Public Radio podcasts Neighbors and The Promise. After growing up in Nebraska, Colorado and Illinois, David graduated from Belmont University in Nashville and worked as an award-winning recording artist, songwriter and touring musician.