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Drought Drives Ranchers on Trail to Last Roundup

Livestock: They're selling off their cattle. A generations-old way of life is ending for some.

June 23, 2002|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA JUNTA, Colo. — With no snow last winter, and no rain last spring, there is no grass this summer. With no grass there is no choice. They must bring their herds here, to this stop on the old Santa Fe Trail, this crossroads of the ancient trading routes, and sell.

They arrive almost every morning, their sad caravans pulling up to the two sale barns on the edge of town. They sort their cattle into pens, then arrange themselves in bleachers around the dirt ring, trying to maintain their composure while they watch the hard work of a lifetime go to the highest bidder.

It's more than just another dry season for the 16,000 cattle ranchers of Colorado, proud men who have been running cattle on this vast grassland since their grandfathers first taught them the difference between a calf and a yearling. As the West swelters through a once-in-a-lifetime drought, as the soil turns the driest it's been since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, ranchers are forced to cut back or fold up spreads that have been in their families for generations.

Some weep. Others hold the frozen smiles of men losing at poker. No matter what face they show the world, however, every herd being broken up means a cattleman's heart is being broken, and everyone in the sale barns knows it.

"I don't know a single buyer," says John Campbell, manager of one sale barn, "who hasn't expressed concern and compassion for these sellers."

Outside one barn last week, a Kansas woman whose husband had come to buy cattle met a Colorado man who had come to sell. They stood, visiting, and the man told the woman about his troubles--dry weather, hungry livestock. She shoved her fists into the pockets of her long skirt.

"That's a shame," she said. "A real shame."

He looked at her, his face wracked with worry, and they walked together like old partners into the barn.

Herd liquidations are happening elsewhere in the drought-stricken West, but the ranchers of Colorado consider La Junta the epicenter. Even under normal circumstances, they say, La Junta is the nation's second-busiest cattle market, after Oklahoma City. But suddenly the steady flow of summer sales has turned into a stampede.

La Junta and cattle have always gone together, like hamburger and ketchup, since the days when driving a herd through downtown didn't involve a trailer. And the two sale barns in La Junta have always been sanctuaries for ranchers, places for talking shop and socializing after weeks of speaking with no one but their cows. The air is warm and moist with the smell of dung. The walls and floors are specked with flies and spit and cigarette butts and sunflower seeds. The auctioneers and ring men exchange sly winks with the buyers and silly jokes with the sellers, and it's all a bit of fraternity and fun for loners who rarely go a day without breaking a sweat.

This summer, however, the barns have become somber playhouses, their rings the stages for one-act tragedies about the ravages of drought.

"A rancher and his cattle--it's like a romance," Campbell said.

And when the romance ends, the lowing of the cows can sound like weeping violins.

On a typical June day last year, a sale barn in La Junta would auction about 1,700 head of cattle. This summer the barns are working three times that fast, and one day last week the number of cattle sold hit 6,000. The sell-off has become so frenzied, both barns are adding extra days to their schedules, with some auctions going around the clock.

One buyer from Missouri, who didn't want to give his name, came to La Junta last month with the intention of staying two days. When he saw the quality and abundance of cattle coming into the barns, he stayed six weeks, filling $4.5 million worth of orders from various clients. By Wednesday the man had shipped 142 semis full of cattle back East, and he wasn't done.

Before the summer is over, two-thirds of Colorado's 3.3 million head of cattle will be sold or shipped elsewhere to graze, said Chuck Hanagan, executive director of the local Farm Service Agency. The immediate loss to ranchers will be $420 million, he estimated. But the long-term effect on the region, and on a way of life as old as the West, is impossible to gauge.

"These guys are selling their livelihood," Hanagan said. "It would be like a carpenter selling his tools."

Floyd Rains was just one of the ranchers selling off last week. He came to town early from his spread just south, parked his pickup in the lot and walked slowly past the pens, where his herd was being sorted. Bulls this way, cows and calves that way.

He entered the barn, which was already packed with buyers from Missouri, Kentucky, Minnesota and other rain-soaked states where the ground has been blessed with a velvety layer of grass. A few men stared in sympathy. Rains acknowledged their stares from deep under the brim of his white cowboy hat.

He looked tired.

"Only slept a little last night," he said, spitting the words out like sunflower seeds.

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