Death comes with raising cattle: coyotes, blizzards and the inevitable trip to the slaughterhouse and dinner plate. But after 30 years of ranching, Mark and Mary Kaltenbach were not ready for what met them after a wildfire charred their land and more than one million acres of rain-starved range this month.
Dozens of their Angus cows lay dead on the blackened ground, hooves jutting in the air. Others staggered around like broken toys, unable to see or breathe, their black fur and dark eyes burned, plastic identification tags melted to their ears. Young calves lay dying.
Ranching families across this countryside are now facing an existential threat to a way of life that has sustained them since homesteading days: years of cleanup and crippling losses after wind-driven wildfires across Kansas, Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle killed seven people and devoured homes, miles of fences and as much as 80 percent of some families’ cattle herds.
But for many, the first job after the fire passed was loading a rifle.
“You think you’re done,” he said, “and the next day you got to go shoot more.”
For decades and generations, ranching has defined people’s days. Mr. Kaltenbach would wake up at 4:30 a.m. without an alarm clock…“It’s our life,” Mrs. Kaltenbach, 57, said. “We lost our routine.”
“We did what had to be done,” Mr. Kaltenbach, 69, said. “They’re gentle. They know us. We know them. You just thought, ‘Wow, I am sorry.’”