Keith Kisling normally has 1,500 head of cattle on his land near the Oklahoma-Kansas border. Last year’s U.S. drought changed all that. For the first time in four decades as a farmer and rancher, he has none.

“We didn’t have wheat pasture this year,” leaving no cheap forage for the young animals to eat before they are sold to feedlots, Kisling, 65, said by telephone from Burlington, OK. “The ponds and creeks are dry.”

Even after storms dumped 22 in. (56 cm.) of snow over four days in February, water shortages and dirt-dry Keith Kisling normally has 1,500 head of cattle on his land near the Oklahoma-Kansas border. Last year’s U.S. drought changed all that. For the first time in four decades as a farmer and rancher, he has none. pastures across the Great Plains are shrinking herds. Cattle grazing in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas on Jan. 1 fell 16% from a year earlier to 1.34 million head, the fewest since the government began collecting the data in 2002. Retail-beef prices jumped to a record in January, the same month a shortage of cattle forced Cargill Inc. to shut a Texas processing plant.

“The water problem has been catastrophic” for ranchers who can’t be profitable without pastures or dormant wheat crops for cheap feed, says Lane Broadbent, a vice president at KIS Futures Inc. in Oklahoma City, who has been a commodity broker for more than two decades and co-owns a 400-acre wheat farm. “When you have such dry weather, you get no grass.”

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