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Cattle ranchers in St. Johns Arizona share their challenges with this summers lack of rain and the sever drought the state is facing.

Arizona Republic

ST. JOHNS, Arizona — Kevin McFee looked out across the grasslands on his ranch, where a pair of cows grazed in the distance among the sagebrush and juniper trees.

Usually this time of year, he’ll see tall dark clouds rolling in over the pasture. Arriving with thunder and lightning, the storms douse the land and nourish the grasses. When the monsoon rains come, the grasses will turn so green, McFee said that “it almost hurts your eyes.”

But this year, the monsoon hasn’t come. The summer has brought just a few sprinkles and unrelenting blue skies. The rangelands across eastern Arizona have been left parched.

McFee looked down at the dusty ground and touched the toe of his boot to a tuft of golden-brown grass, which was shriveled to a crisp.

“It’s pretty burned and dry,” McFee said. “This is the stuff that needs to grow in the warm season.”

He and other ranchers count on grasses like sacaton and black grama to fatten up their cows during the summer. And for these grasses to grow, they need summer rains.

As the monsoon storms have failed to materialize, much of Arizona has baked in one of the driest summers on record.

Cattle rancher Kevin McFee points to dry grass on a parched ranch near St. Johns, Ariz. on Aug 13, 2020. The lack of monsoon rain has left the grasslands dry. (Photo: Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic)

Cattle ranchers have been forced to adapt. Some are buying hay to feed their cows. Some are hauling water in trailers to fill troughs for their livestock to drink.

McFee has decided to rent pastureland where there is more grass to feed his cows, aiming to prevent overgrazing on lands where the grasses have dried up.  

“For me to lease something is sort of a drastic measure,” McFee said. “This is just an extra thing that we’ve had to do, trying to get ahead of the drought.”

He also plans to downsize his herd, selling about a third of his mother cows between now and mid-fall. It has been so dry that he has no choice but to sell off some of his herd.

Deep roots in ranching

The grasslands around the town of St. Johns in Apache County ripple in the wind on rolling hills among knolls formed by protruding outcrops of black volcanic rock.

In low-lying washes where runoff usually collects, ranchers have built earthen barriers to form ponds — “dirt tanks,” they call them — for their cattle to drink.

This summer, with those ponds bone-dry, Trenton Hancock has been hauling more water by truck for his cows.

“It’s the driest I’ve seen,” Hancock said. “Last night we got a little sprinkle, but you can see, it’s not enough to do anything. But we’re grateful for it. I mean, every drop we’re grateful for.”

Hancock attached a plastic pipe to a tank mounted on a trailer. The water flowed out and gushed into a trough.

“Hey cows! Come on!” Hancock shouted, carrying a bag of protein-rich feed as the animals lumbered toward him.  

Hancock, 36, is a sixth-generation rancher whose pioneer ancestors, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, traveled in covered wagons from Utah to what then was part of Mexico in the 1870s. Settling near the Little Colorado River, they took up ranching.

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Scratching out a living in these arid lands has always been challenging. In the early years, people in the area contended with outlaws. In 1900, a relative of Hancock’s, Frank LeSueur, joined a posse to hunt for a gang of outlaws and was ambushed and murdered along with another man.

Hancock got his first cow when he was 9 and has been immersed in ranching all his life. He has learned about the business from his grandfather, Dan Heap, who will soon turn 90 and who continues to work with his herd.

Hancock’s grandfather has advised him to move slowly in developing his business and to be on guard against harmful invasive “loco” weeds. He has told him about wet periods when the brush was so tall it rubbed against the horses’ bellies, and about years-long droughts that he managed to weather.

Rancher Trenton Hancock lifts a bale of hay for his cattle on a ranch near St. Johns, Ariz., on Aug. 13, 2020. The land would usually be green this time of year, but the lack of monsoon rains has left the grasslands parched. (Photo: Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic)

“We need what my Grandpa calls a trash-mover,” Hancock said, a storm that sends torrents of water rushing across the land carrying twigs and debris. He said he keeps praying for rain and is confident that eventually “it’ll come.”

But as he tended to his cows last week, there were only wispy clouds floating in the blue sky.

Without the summer storms to cool things down, Hancock said, the pastures get hotter, and the cows need to drink more water.

And with the pastures so starved of water, the cattle aren’t putting on the weight they normally would. The late summer still could bring some rain like it did last year, Hancock said, but much of the prime growing season has already passed.

Hancock has never needed to bring hay bales to feed his cattle in the summer. That changed this summer. He said he always tries to plan ahead for potential hardships and had grown some hay on his own fields, storing it just in case.

“Right now is the time we need those calves to grow, so they’ll be a good size at market this fall,” Hancock said. But with smaller calves this year, he said, ranchers will be earning less when they take their animals to market.

Standing in the bed of his pickup, he lifted a hay bale and heaved it into a steel feeder.  

Cows and calves trotted toward the hay, their clopping hooves kicking up dust. They put their snouts into the green mound of alfalfa and snorted as they devoured it.

Hancock lifted his hat and ran his fingers through his close-cropped hair.

“You can’t hardly afford hay. I’m fortunate enough to be able to grow my own,” he said. “But if I was having to buy hay to feed these cows, I don’t think I could make it.”

In addition to ranching, Hancock works full time at the local coal-fired power plant, the Coronado Generating Station. He said that job, by supplementing his income, has helped him continue in the ranching business and buy more land.

This part of Arizona is a tough place to raise cattle, and “it seems like it’s drier all the time,” Hancock said. But he said he’s prepared to get through this drought and continue on.

“Hopefully, next year is better,” he said. “It’s just part of life up here. You just deal with it and keep going.”

One of the driest monsoons

Some weather forecasters have dubbed this summer’s lack of monsoon rains the “non-soon,” a term that also floated around during the dry summer of 2019

Statewide, Arizona in 2020 had the fifth driest June-July on record.

The period between June 15 and Aug. 16 was the driest on record since 1950 in Phoenix and Tucson. Other parts of the state have had one of the driest summers to date.

Jeremy Cluff fills a 300-gallon tank so he can haul water to his cattle on Aug. 19, 2020, at Battle Axe Ranch, south of Superior, Arizona. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)

When the monsoon comes to the desert Southwest, it typically brings a shift in winds and weather circulation, and humidity from the Gulf of California in Mexico is drawn north. But this year, the transition from dry to humid hasn’t progressed as usual.

“We have not had the high-pressure system move north of us very often or for very long,” said Michael Crimmins, a professor and climate science extension specialist at the University of Arizona. “We never actually got into the monsoon pattern proper because we’re just kind of caught in this June weather pattern.”

Arizona sees a lot of year-to-year variability in summer rains, he said, and this breakdown of the monsoon has happened before.

“It is probably natural variability that has caused the monsoon to largely fail across Arizona,” Crimmins said.

Dry summers tend to be especially hot in Arizona. But the heat is now occurring alongside human-caused climate change, which has pushed average temperatures higher. As Phoenix and other parts of the West have baked in record heat this summer, meteorologists have pointed to a mix of contributing factors, including the lack of monsoon rains, the urban heat-island effect and global heating.

Beyond Arizona, drought has intensified across the West over the past year. Nearly 66% of the region, which includes 11 Western states, is now classified as being in a moderate, severe or extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor website. That’s up from just 7% of the region a year ago.   

More: With no help from the monsoon, state crews deliver water to wildlife

Jeremy Cluff fills a 300-gallon tank so he can haul water to his cattle on Aug. 19, 2020, at the Battle Axe Ranch, south of Superior, Arizona. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)

Scientists have found that higher temperatures due to climate change have significantly intensified drought in the West during the past two decades, turning what would have been a moderately arid 20 years into a “megadrought” worse than any other since the 1500s. In this hotter drought, scientists say, the data points to an increasing long-term trend of heat-driven drying, or “aridification.”

Climate change has caused it to be hotter this year than it would have been otherwise, and when temperatures rise, plants consume more water through evapotranspiration and create more demand on water resources, Crimmins said.

It’s possible, he wrote in an email, “we may find out a decade from now that there were fingerprints of climate change on this monsoon season, but right now, there doesn’t seem to be any clear indications that this is anything more than bad luck.”

A portrait of Jeremy Cluff, August 19, 2020, at the Battle Axe Ranch, south of Superior, Arizona. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)

Despite the drought, the cattle are faring well on Battle Axe Ranch near Superior, said Jeremy Cluff, the ranch’s manager. The area in Pinal County, where the cattle graze among saguaros and palo verde trees, hasn’t had a good rain since early March. That has left the land with sparse grass, devoid of the purple flowering bushes that the cattle usually eat during the summer.

But Cluff said they’re still feeding on mesquite beans and other vegetation and are drinking from an artesian well next to the dry bed of a seasonal creek. Cluff has been hauling water to keep troughs filled in one part of the ranch. He plans to move cattle to another canyon where there is plenty of dry grass.

“We keep our herd size at the right amount for this kind of country,” Cluff said. “They’ve adapted to still thrive in this time, in these dry seasons. But it really takes us carefully managing our grazing.”

A bigger worry than the drought’s direct effects, he said, is that people might spark a fire, and the ranch could go up in smoke. Already this year, there have been a few wildfires in the area, Cluff said, two of which were sparked by target shooters.

‘We just adapt’

In St. Johns, a trailer loaded with hay is parked beside Diamond C Feed. In front of the store stands a large sign with a message that seems to describe how some ranchers view their work during the drought: “LIFE DOESN’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT TO BE WONDERFUL.”

Macky Trickey, a 65-year-old lifelong rancher, said he has to contend with many challenges he can’t control, from changes in cattle prices to droughts to Mexican gray wolves, which sometimes kill cows. Even so, he said, he really enjoys working with cattle and horses.

Trickey said he’s seen some ranchers decide to get out of the business, and the drought adds to the financial pressures. Still, he plans to stay with it.

“I always like to have a plan,” he said, smiling. “But I’m looking at selling cows. And I keep hoping that we’re going to get something here.”

Cattle prices have been low during the coronavirus crisis, and if many ranchers sell cows during the drought, that could drive prices down further, Trickey said. But if the year stays ultra-dry, he said, many ranchers may not have any choice but to sell on a depressed market.

It’s such a tough business, McFee quipped, that many economists would say “most ranchers are criminally insane.” But ranchers have to be perpetual optimists, he said, “because it’s just the nature of this business: If it doesn’t rain today, it’s hopefully going to rain tomorrow.”

McFee bought his ranch south of St. John in 2011, and the first two years were very dry. But the following years turned wetter. McFee, who is 43, said he’s had more years with good or decent rainfall than with drought.

“We’re facing a couple hard years,” he said. “I think we just adapt.”

In addition to ranching, McFee works a state livestock inspector.

He said he focuses on adapting his cattle to the land and on making sure there is enough forage vegetation for wildlife as well as cows. By moving cattle off the dry grassland to the rented pasture, he said, he can help conserve the land’s natural resources.

As he stood on the dry field, clouds seemed to be building on the horizon. But overhead the sky remained blue.

“I’ve been calling this place the hole in the sky the last couple of years,” McFee said.

And yet, something else about these grasslands, he said, is that they can bounce back with just a bit of moisture.

McFee walked beside his 13-year-old son, Everett. He said he remembered that in 2017, he and Everett had a long, hot ride on their horses driving cows to the top of a mesa to drink from a pond. The grasslands were lush green then. To cool down, Everett rode his horse right into the water and went for a swim.

With all those “dirt tanks” now dry, water must be pumped from a well to supply the cows. McFee said the water is pumped through a pipeline to storage tanks and then to concrete and steel “drinkers” for the cows.

“Sometimes it gets a little discouraging looking at a piece of land like this when you know what it’s capable of, if it just would get a little bit of that warm season moisture. It turns into a savannah here,” McFee said. “It’s a harsh place, but it can turn around really quick.”

Growing up, McFee heard stories about his grandfather, who ranched in New Mexico during the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s. By moving cattle and selling some animals, he was able to adapt and weather the drought.

“I think it was probably a heck of a lot worse then than what we’re going through now,” McFee said. “There’s comfort in knowing that other people have gotten through it.”

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