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Texas ranchers struggle as they face the worst drought in over a decade

MITCH BORDEN, BYLINE: And I'm Mitch Borden in Marfa, Texas. This week, storms have been passing over the state, providing communities with much-needed rain. But that may just be a small reprieve as Texans continue to face the worst drought the state's seen in over a decade. For state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, the severity of the drought is obvious.

JOHN NIELSON-GAMMON: So we've seen crop failures and reduced yields. We're seeing water restrictions in place in many areas of the state as aquifers and reservoir levels get low.

BORDEN: In west Texas, months with little to no rain have left ranchers like Sarah Mackenzie Evans in a tough spot. As we drive around her ranch looking for cattle, you can see cacti and mesquite are dying here.

SARAH MACKENZIE EVANS: Here they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

EVANS: Oh, I bet they'll moo now.

BORDEN: The landscape looks desaturated as heat waves drift on the horizon. There are only 13 cows left on the ranch, and Evans says the rest of the herd, about 250 cattle, were sent away to a feedlot months ago.

EVANS: Hi, girls.

BORDEN: She starts doling out hay to the hungry black Angus cows. They've gotten used to getting handfed since there's little left to graze.

(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)

EVANS: I know.

BORDEN: When I visited her a few weeks ago, it had been nearly a year since it had last rained. Evans described the situation pretty quickly.

EVANS: Bleak - bleak is what comes to mind. It's been hot and dry. This drought is - I don't know - it seems like they're always terrible when you're in the middle of them.

BORDEN: Ranchers like Evans are having to make calculated decisions to keep up with rising costs and to preserve their land.

EVANS: How many cows do I sell? You sell your oldest cows first. How many of my young cows do I keep? And these are all business decisions, but it feels more than a business decision. It feels like you're making decisions on things that you have a relationship with.

BORDEN: And it all takes a toll, she says, emotionally, financially and spiritually.

EVANS: I think the big question to me that's looming is, how much longer do we have? Every week, every time we have one more feed bill, how much longer can I hang on? And that's the real question.

BORDEN: Evans' grandfather used to say the meanest thing about a drought is that you don't know when it'll end. And experts are forecasting a dry fall and winter, which means Texas ranchers like Evans could be in for some long, dry months ahead.

For NPR News, I'm Mitch Borden in Marfa, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mitch Borden