Under Water

How Ranchers Balance Flood & Drought

Floods can destroy entire communities, but when the rain stops and the land dries up, the need for water becomes existential. The livelihood of ranchers depends on a balance between wet and dry. It all comes down to conditions out of their control.

As a third-generation cowboy, Delon Parker lives in a make–or–break world built by bold ranchers who dared to work through the uncertainty. Delon and his sister Elle McGill, a state cattle brand inspector, understand how crucial this natural balance is for the survival of ranches across the country.

Do or Die

Ranchers, the backbone of American agriculture, fuel our nation’s growth by raising and caring for livestock. Their life’s work is essential to our survival. With so much at stake, the impacts of severe droughts and floods cannot be overstated.

Working on a ranch or a farm, you’re feeding the world, Elle explains. That is a big deal. And that’s what’s so 
scary about all this weather—if we get droughted out, or snowed out, or flooded out, the country falls apart.

With centuries of generational knowledge, ranchers have developed many strategies to prepare for these natural disasters. But there is only so much they can do in the face of the overwhelming force of floods and the desolation of drought. 
Delon knows preparation will only get you so far.

It's completely out of your control—you’ve just got to go with the flow, he says. For a lot of the smaller ranches especially, it’s do or die—rain or they'll bust.

When a ranch goes under, their livestock may be purchased, but their ranching heritage—part of the fabric of 
America—ceases to exist. Years of family traditions can be lost in one devastating season.

Elle vividly remembers the impact of bad weather on local family ranches.

When drought hit last year, we saw people hauling out truckloads of cows and calves, Elle recalls. It was absolutely heartbreaking because that was their life. That is all they knew. And it could be generations, great-great-grandparents could have had that place and kept it going until now. All you can do is pray for rain and a lot of it.

Water is Everything

Nothing survives without water, and more rain means more grass for a larger herd of cattle. Conversely, without enough rain, ranchers must make tough decisions about the size of their herd.

If you don’t get rain in the spring, you’re not going to get grass to feed your livestock, Delon says. If that doesn't come, then there's nothing for the cows to eat.

Elle agrees, stating, Water is the backbone of absolutely everything on the ranch. But as important as it is for livestock and crops, she also acknowledges its destructive potential.

Too much of it at one time is going to ruin everything, she says. It's not going to be a catastrophic flood that rips houses off the ground, but a slow, steady flood. We just hope for the lesser of two evils between drought and flood.

The lesser of two evils is difficult to determine. Droughts are a slow–burn killer, ruining a ranch’s ability to feed cattle over time. Major rain and snowstorms are rare, but they can destroy entire herds in a single night.

Those bad rainstorms can cause you to lose a big portion of your cattle in the blink of an eye, and there’s not a lot you can do about it sometimes, Delon says. Every rancher remembers storms like that. It's terrifying, and you just hope you’re prepared enough to make it through.

Surviving, Together

Elle and Delon were raised in this lifestyle. They understand how to prepare for the worst while keeping optimistic eyes looking ahead.

You’re always fighting weather, Delon explains. Keeping calves alive during snowstorms has been a nightmare. 
But at the same time, that same snow that kills calves will feed others in another month when the grass starts to grow.

But it takes more than a solid work ethic to keep things moving through hard times. In many ranching communities, neighbors offer help when they are needed most.

Community is huge, Elle explains. We rely on our neighbors, even if we’re 20 or 30 miles apart. Whether it’s ranch work or helping older neighbors set up doctor appointments, the community steps up to help them along.

With his life of experience working with ranchers, Delon agrees.

Neighbors help each other, he says. If someone has extra grass, or a pasture that didn’t get used much the year before, they’ll make good deals with each other to try to get through tough times.

And in the good times, that sense of connectedness remains just as strong. A community that faces so many challenges together builds an unbreakable bond in the process.

Ranching is a huge community, Elle says. People get together in community halls and just spend time with each other. It may be weeks before you go to town and see anybody, so that's your family—your ranching community, your neighbors.