Road to Recovery

The Giles Ranch fight to get through trying times.

Ranchers are only human. And it’s only human to worry about the future, what with the well-entrenched megadrought that seared the countryside this year along with high fuel and feed prices.

Then there’s Katie Giles-Shaw. She chooses to view her situation with a more optimistic outlook. She’s part of the Giles Ranch near Ashland, Kan., run by her parents, Roger and Cathy Giles, along with Katie and her two sisters, Jenny Giles-Betschart and Molly Giles-Beckford. All have different responsibilities on the ranch; Katie’s is the cowherd.

  Molly Giles-Beckford and Katie Giles-Shaw work cattle on horseback. The Giles family has ranched in Clark County, Kansas, since the 1940s. Source: Giles Ranch.


The drought, she readily admits, has been bad. “We had a little rain this summer and before that, we hadn’t had any since last September (2021).” What’s more, the rain in June wasn’t enough to do much good.

The Giles Ranch is a commercial cow-calf and farming operation. In addition to the cow herd, they traditionally run stockers on summer pasture and have a retail beef store in Ashland  This year, to save what pasture they have, they didn’t buy any yearlings.  

As of mid-September 2022, it still hadn’t rained, forcing Katie and the rest of the Giles crew to face some tough decisions. That, however, is where Katie’s optimistic nature shines.

“We are putting everything in place as to what we want to sell first. It’s a good culling opportunity to keep the really, really high performers and phenotypically pleasing ones.”

All their replacement heifers have been DNA tested for around 10 years so they have data on most of their cows. Beyond that, they retain ownership of their calves through the feedyard. “We can go back to that data and see which cows aren’t performing quite as well. We’re looking at it as a good opportunity to really go through the herd and clean house. Once the drought is over, we’ll just be that much better off.”

Making the cut

Having gone through the DNA data, she’s selected the cows to cull. Normally, the ranch weans calves in mid-October. For 2022, they weaned a month early and sorted the cull cows into a separate group.

But she’ll sell those culls strategically rather than haul them to the nearest sale barn right away. “Right now, we’re going to sell about 350 to 400 cows, and that’s not including our opens,” she says. Younger cows and heifers are targeted for the Profit Proven commercial female sale at Gardiner Angus Ranch November 21.

The older bred cows are slated for a special female sale in November at an area livestock auction. They banked some pastures to provide a little fall grazing for the heifers, but with very little grass, options are limited for the older cows. “These we may have to get rid of sooner than that, but we’re going to try to hang onto them until then because they’re still good quality cattle.”

The Giles sisters: Katie Giles-Shaw, Jenny Giles-Betschart and Molly Giles-Beckford. The women are fifth-generation ranchers raising cattle in the open spaces of southwest Kansas. Source: Giles Ranch.

Indeed, this drought is severe, but she looks to her father for guidance. “He’s been through many droughts and he knows a lot more than we do about all this. But for my sisters and I, after the Starbuck fire in 2017, dealing with drought is challenging but not devastating. We know that this, too, shall pass.”

The fire of 2017 will forever be seared into the hearts and minds of many in Southwest Kansas. It burned the entire Giles Ranch. They lost three of their homes as well as half their cowherd and what they didn’t lose to the fire, more had to be euthanized. 

Then it rained and the land blossomed. They began rebuilding their herd and their lives, running stockers to keep the ranch afloat. “And slowly we’ve built the cow herd back up and we’ve decreased the amount of yearlings that we run and we’re at a good spot now, if it would rain.”

The forecast

“If you look at the long-term average, we are really in a mess. Look at the last 20 years, we’re in a very profound, historic megadrought.”

That’s the word from meteorologist Matt Makens, a weather consultant with Makens Weather. Among his clients are NCBA and CattleFax.

Just how profound? “If you compare that running 20-year average, historically you have to go back into the 1800s, the 1500s, 1400s, all the way back into the early 1100s to find a period of time where this long-term drought would be considered as severe as it is now,” he said. “So this is moving beyond a one-in-a-100-year event. It’s that significant.”

That tracks with Giles-Shaws’ memory. Looking back, she said the present drought started around 2001. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t rained sometime, somewhere in the past 20 years. There will be some wet times, Makens said. But if it doesn’t rain enough, or rain at the right time, drought conditions will persist.

“The overall pattern is not shifting until November, December (2022). So we’re going to see periods of drought across the West, moving into the Midwest, moving into the Corn Belt,” he said. “The hard-hit areas will continue to be hard hit,” at least for the remainder of the year.

But there’s a faint glimmer of hope. “Once we hit winter and head into the spring of 2023, the door is not fully open but it’s starting to crack open at the potential that we’ll be into more of a neutral pattern or even offer the chance for El Nino to develop.”

He said the weather has been dominated by La Nina the past two years. “To go into three years is somewhat unprecedented. It’s very rare; possible, but rare.” Should the shift to El Nino happen, it’s possible the weather pattern will shift to more favorable conditions, he said.

For the Giles Ranch, and many other ranchers and farmers in similar straits, it can’t come soon enough.


Katie’s daughter, Addie (right), is among the family’s sixth generation of ranchers. The ranch maintains a spring and fall calving season. Source: Giles Ranch. 


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