ENID, Okla. — Western Oklahoma was devastated by wildfires in April that raged across the area and caused millions in damages.
“More than 348,000 acres burned, causing a wide variety of losses to livestock, pastures, hay, fences and facilities,” Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension livestock marketing specialist, said after the fires.
Of that, estimated cattle operation losses from the wildfires exceed $26 million, according to officials. And yet, despite the debilitating blazes, many ranchers didn't have their cattle or livestock insured, and still don't.
While she didn't have an exact figure, American Farmers & Ranchers Mutual Insurance Company agent and Seiling rancher Pam Livingston estimated just "a small percentage" of owners in Northwest Oklahoma have livestock insurance for their cattle.
"I think a lot of people maybe don’t know that it’s available, or they just maybe feel like it’s too cost prohibitive to insure their entire herd. And I honestly think people for the most (think) a catastrophe like we’ve had isn’t going to happen that often where you lose your whole herd in one setting," Livingston said.
Of the cattle industry losses from the recent wildfires, damages and losses included $16.4 million for fence replacement and repair; $1.4 million for livestock killed or destroyed as a result of the fire plus veterinary costs and reduced value of surviving injured animals; $6.3 million for burned facilities and corrals; $1.6 million for emergency feed; and $660,000 for burned pasture and hay.
Livingston said for those that don't have their cattle insured, it could potentially be a devastating event for the owner. She said she's heard of people losing anywhere from five to 100-plus cows at a time.
"So (hypothetically) you’re looking at like $1,000 approximately for a cow and say $500 to $600 for a calf. So say if a person lost 30 cows and calves, you’d be looking at around a $45,000 loss," she said.
Other big reasons people might choose to not insure their cattle include cost, typically not losing a large amount of cattle at a time, and the idea many might have of "it won't happen to me," Livingston said.
Alan Zrust, a cattle producer living in the Goltry area who does not routinely insure his cattle, said he bases his decision on when to insure his cattle on whether his financial circumstances would allow him to suffer a large loss to death or natural disaster. His farm produces crops — mainly wheat — and cattle, as well as hay.
So far, in the entire life of his operation, he has not felt the need to insure his cattle. But he said he could see the need, if someone had a loan against their cattle that would leave them flat-footed and unable to pay the note on cattle that were now a total loss.
“Yeah. I could see if this was the only income for someone, then I could understand that,” he said. “But I have just never insured them."
Zrust said he does have a break-over point where he would insure cattle and that is based on the number of head he has at one time.
“I suppose if I got into having like 1,000 head, then I might start conceding it," he said.
Panhandle cattle producer Evelyn Dixon is one of the people to whom Zrust is referring.
A native of Kansas, Dixon did not have a long line of ranchers or farmers who came before her to establish a lot of land. So all of her land has been purchased and paid off with her own full-time work for 38 years in the oil field. When she purchased her cattle herd, a longtime dream of hers, she knew she could not absorb a loss — not even a disease loss that took several head, so she insured them.
“Look, it costs between $15 and $20 per head, per year to insure them,” she said.
In the 2017 wildfires that swept across the Texas Panhandle, the Oklahoma Panhandle and Southwest Kansas, Dixon’s land south of Knowles was seriously impacted. Her cows were not burned.
However, in the aftermath, likely from stress to the cow herd, she had some losses. She also lost all but about 400 acres of her pasture for her cattle and all of her stored hay. Add to that, the loss of many miles of fencing and more likely moving of her cows, and Dixon said she is glad she insured her cows.
“I have people chide me all of the time and tell me I am just participating in ‘fear-surance,' they call it,” she said. “I tell them, ‘Oh yeah? Is that why you buy that crop insurance every year?’"
Dixon said she is wide awake and aware of what size of a producer she is and she knows she cannot afford to lose a cow herd on which she is still paying, which can no longer produce calves to provide the money to pay back loans.
"My cattle are my crop on my land. They are what I count on for production. Why wouldn’t I spent the $15 to $20 per head per year to ensure that I can do that?”
Add on that, unless a fire is declared a disaster, Livingston said disaster payments and other post-fire aid is hard to come by after a devastating blaze.
"If you have a small fire, and say it only burns like 2,000 or 3,000 acres, they’re typically not going to declare that a disaster area, so there would be no reimbursement for that," she said.
She said with some insurance companies such as American Farmers & Ranchers, if someone wants to insure their cow for $1,000, it would cost about $6.30 a year for one cow.
"It’s not as expensive as maybe what some people would think," Livingston said.
Livingston said even being an insurance agent, she and her husband didn't insure their cattle until about a year ago after other devastating wildfires in Western Oklahoma. In 2014, their area had a wildfire and they lost a lot of grass, but luckily some other people cut their fence which allowed Livingston's cattle to escape.
She said after last year's fires, she sat down with her husband and the two decided to insure their cattle.
"I think, just as an agent, and last year after the wildfires in the Woodward and panhandle area, I did send out a letter to all of my customers who were farmers and ranchers and explained the livestock insurance to them. And my question to them was, 'You insure your tractors, you insure your farm implements and your equipment and it costs the same to insure your cows. And your cows give you a return every year … every year you’re going to have a calf, why wouldn’t you insure them?'" Livingston said.