Wildfires Killed 9,000 Cattle This Spring—And Kids Are Leading The Recovery Effort

Old-fashioned 4-H clubs are helping orphaned calves get back on their feet.

June 1, 2017
how to help midwestern wildfire victims
Wichita Eagle/Getty

When Firecracker, a calf just a few days old, arrived on Erin Boggs’ small farm outside Meade, Kansas, he’d just lost his mother. His body was covered in burns. He was bewildered and scared.

The cow who was Firecracker’s mother was one of an estimated 3,000-9,000 head of cattle who were victims of wildfires that ripped through America’s heartland in early March 2017. In Kansas alone, the USDA estimates, the fast-moving fires destroyed 630,000 acres of land, and more than $36 million of fencing. Add in Texas and Oklahoma, and it’s estimated that nearly 1.5 million acres of farmland—an area slightly bigger than the state of Delaware—were burned.

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“Losses varied from fencing to cattle to homes to entire farmsteads,” says Nancy Brown, Director of Policy Development for the Kansas Farm Bureau. “Ranchers spend a lifetime building the genetics in their cow herds, and for some, that was wiped out in a few hours.”

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Boggs’ parents were among those who lost nearly everything.

Related: The Coming Agricultural Crisis—And 8 Things you Can Do About It Right Now

“They lost 95 percent of their replacement heifers, 75-80 percent of their calves and 50 percent of their cows,” Boggs says. “That’s a lot. For any operation, really, but for a husband-wife operation they’ve built all their lives… It’s been devastating.”

Of the surviving calves, many were without mothers. That meant they required special care—and a level of attention the recovering ranchers didn’t have the bandwidth to give.

So Boggs thought of a way to help. She teamed up with Rachelle Schlochtermeier, the co-leader of their children’s 4-H group, and offered to raise the orphaned calves, free of charge, until the ranchers were ready to take them back.

how to help farms hurt by midwest wildfires
A 4-H club member tends to one of the many calves orphaned by wildfires that ripped through the midwest this spring. Photograph courtesy of Erin Boggs

 

Founded more than a century ago, 4-H is the nation’s largest youth development organization. Participants complete a variety of projects, practicing leadership and learning about everything from agriculture to health.

“I really didn’t have any idea how many calves there would be,” Boggs says. “I thought maybe 20.”

They ended up with 99. To care for them all, Boggs and Schlochtermeier enlisted more than 20 foster families—many of whom had children in the 4-H group.

Related: Conventional Farming Ruined The Soil On Our Farm—Here's How We Saved It

The calves ranged in age from “brand new” to several months old. The majority were orphans whose mothers had perished in the fire; others had lost their mothers in the intense smoke, or could no longer nurse because their mothers’ udders were so badly burnt.

Like Firecracker, the calves arrived singed and confused. They required three bottle feedings per day, as well as regular treatments with salve and ointment, including lavender and coconut oils.

To get the job done, it was the children—the 4-H members themselves—who stepped up to the plate.

how to help farms hurt by midwest wildfires
4-H club members bottle-feed calves orphaned by wildfires this spring. Photograph courtesy of Erin Boggs

 

“The kids have been involved from the very beginning,” says Boggs. “They’ve been the ones rubbing the cream on the burns and providing the endless milk replacer bottles. Kids from their 20s down to two years old; each has helped in any way they can.”

In an interview with local television, children of all ages discuss the effort. “Since I’m so young, I really can’t do a whole lot,” says 11-year-old Walter Koons. “And if this is what I can do to help, then this is what I want to do.”

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“There have been a lot of stepped-on feet, kicked shins, early mornings and late, late nights, but they haven’t complained,” says Boggs. “All these kids have worked so hard and have really understood we’re doing this to help people… It’s pretty amazing to see families come together when they don’t even know some of these ranchers—and give up so much of themselves.”

It’s not only local families, either; people from across the country have offered their support in the form of monetary or in-kind donations, helping to provide milk replacer, buckets, hay, grain and medicine for the calves.

“When we first offered [to do this], a couple of [the ranchers] got teary eyed,” says Boggs. “A lot of them have asked ‘What can we pay you?’ and we told them that’s not the point. They’re just super appreciative and grateful.”

Later, one told her: “Without you guys, these calves would have starved to death, or worse."

For these ranchers—and for everyone affected by the fires—the road to recovery will be hard. “[They] are resilient and determined to move on, but this disaster will have a life-long impact,” says Brown of the Kansas Farm Bureau.  

Or, as Boggs explains: “It’d be like getting asked to go to your job for three years and not get paid—and do twice the amount of work.”

“Their only return is hoping it pays off in the years and years and years to come,” she says.

Hope, though, there are already signs of that. Take Firecracker, who fell sick time and time again—and whom Boggs and her husband considered putting down on several occasions.

“He has been a constant example of don't give up on yourself or others,” says Boggs. “He has never given up, so we have chosen to never give up on him.”

Just last week, Firecracker spent his first night outside with the other calves.

He’s also receiving a daily coat of sunscreen to protect his new skin—the skin that’s growing over his burns.

How to Help 

Want to support the recovery of the midwest’s wildfire victims? To support the Orphaned Calf Relief of SW Kansas: Please write a check to “4 Leaf Clover 4-H Club Orphaned Calf Fund” and mail it to: Meade State Bank, PO Box 250, Meade, KS 67864.

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