Where did all the cattle, and people, go?



I hate expressways for any number of reasons, the main one being that the expressway is filled with maniacs who want to drive as fast as they possibly can through throngs of traffic. So I take blacktops. Or State Highway 2, if you have to get to Fort Madison as I did recently.

Anyone but a blind man would be overcome by three things:

First, the stunning beauty of the southern two tiers of counties. It’s early June, the hills are perfectly green, flowers bloom, Amish buggies roll past. Not far up the road is where Grant Wood framed American Gothic. The whole landscape looks like a regionalist painting.

Second, the stunning absence of cattle on those hills.

Third, the stunning poverty and shrinkage.

From Greenfield to Centerville, it’s a whole different feel than from Sheldon to Clear Lake.

Mobile homes are parked along the highway. Centerville hasn’t had a coat of paint in awhile. The old brick manufacturing haunts closer to the Mississippi cast shadows, not iron.

They had great ambitions back when they built the state’s best town square. There were the coal mines. There were small farms. Ottumwa was a bustling meatpacking center for those farms. Most of the farmers held a second job in Mount Ayr. Over the past 50 years the cattle disappeared to huge feedlots in Kansas and Texas, the small manufacturers were gobbled up and moved out or just closed down, and the brains decided to ply their gray cells someplace else.

The population of Taylor and Ringgold counties dropped in half since 1950, down to 5,000 or 6,000 people each. And they’re still losing people at 2% per year, according to the best estimates.

It’s been continually depressed for the past 40 years.

It leaves people behind who can’t get out. You see them at the convenience store. They will tell you they feel left behind, if you ask them. They drive down Hwy. 2 in an old pickup. You wonder what they’re driving to.

The period of continuous contraction coincides with the shift in cattle production out of Iowa and into the feedlots.

You can’t really grow much corn on that ground, but they try. Taylor and Ringgold counties had the highest acreage withdrawals in Iowa from the Conservation Reserve Program since 2008, when corn prices shot up.

That means more soil into the vales and then the creek winding to the Des Moines River. And it means a few more people washing out with it.

It used to be, driving down Hwy. 71, you would see and smell the cattle on the green hills leading to Carroll. Those hills are black now. The beef packing plant at Denison, among IBP’s first, is gone with the grass. And that means 400 fewer workers for Denison. Which means a few less cars sold, a few less church envelopes and a little lower property values.

And it means a lot fewer workers in Ottumwa and Bloomfield. You can rent a horse just about anywhere, but you can’t chase a doggie.

Somebody figured out it was more efficient to raise cattle on concrete in Kansas, fed on corn grown near Storm Lake. But someday, sooner rather than later, maybe within 20 years, the Ogallala Aquifer will be exhausted. There will be no more water for the cattle on feed at Garden City, Dodge City and Amarillo. The Ogallala is capped and cannot recharge, unlike the Dakota aquifer from which we draw. We can water cattle in Iowa. They will not be able to in the southern Great Plains.

We have been told by Iowa State University that if we were to plant a small percentage, say 10%, of our land strategically to pasture we could solve our water quality problems. There has to be a way for that to be profitable. As it stands, farmers are cancelling CRP contracts.

You won’t solve poverty in Taylor County with hunting lodges and acres owned by doctors from Des Moines.

You solve them by looking at the heyday: when everybody had a cow-calf herd. When Ringgold County had cattle, it had people.

And then, Iowa did not have a terrible soil loss or water quality problem. That has happened since about 1980, when cattle left our state in droves.

Government programs are directed at putting land into corn, sugar, wheat and cotton; or to taking land completely out of production with the CRP or Wetland Reserve. There is no program for a hard-working young cowboy who loves those rolling hills but can’t find a way to make a living at it. Anyone with ambition must leave with a heavy heart because the entire livestock infrastructure has been ripped up and abandoned.

We ship corn to Kansas and people to Kansas City and our soil down the Mississippi. You can drive across the entire state of Iowa and not see a single hog or a single cow standing out there.

Nature will force us to change. Those cattle must go somewhere when the water is gone. If we continue to ship our soil down the river, there will be nothing left for the corn. Or even the cattle.

Cattle are the new buffalo that keep the system whole: from grass to manure to beef to jobs.

Iowa needs them.

Those people along Hwy. 2 really need them.