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Forced to sell cattle during drought, dairy farmers 'just keep praying' for rain

Farmers in Missouri and across the Midwest are suffering through a historic drought leaving behind scorched pastures and dried-up ponds. NBC's Jay Gray reports.

BOLIVAR, Mo. –  The crumbling earth and burned out fields in this small town of 10,000 are sad evidence of what has been a dry, hot and, at times, desperate summer.
See our full drought coverage here. And on Wednesday, Aug. 15, watch NBC News, CNBC, MSNBC, The Weather Channel and Telemundo for daylong, network-wide coverage of the drought.
"The drought has been excessive in this region for several weeks, and it's not just that we've had the 100 degree-plus temperatures -- but they started so early,” said Darin Chappell, Bolivar’s city administrator.

“Normally they begin in July and go through the middle of August, but this year they started in June. So we've had an extraordinary amount of heat and lack of water."

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack designated all of Missouri’s 114 counties as disaster areas, enabling farmers to access federal assistance, in mid-July.  As much as 93 percent of the state is suffering through extreme drought conditions.  

David Franscka said it's the worst his family has seen in more than 50 years of dairy farming.

Paying more for feed than getting for milk
"This year, with the intense heat we've had and the lack of rain, we've had only two measurable rains since April 30,” said Franscka.

NBC's Jay Gray reports from a dairy farm in Bolivar, Mo., where farmers are struggling to pay sky-high hay and feed prices for their livestock, spurred on by the drought.

Ponds have dried up, forcing his family to haul as much as 8,000 gallons of water each day to the cattle herd. Pastures aren't producing any hay or grass for grazing either, leaving many farmers, like Franscka, with no choice but to buy feed – which right now costs more than the milk he's producing.

"'We've spent in excess of $150,000 over the last three months just on the added costs,” he said. “Anytime you're getting less for your milk than you're paying for your feed – it's not going to come out.”

“That's what's discouraging, knowing you’re going in the hole everyday money-wise,” he said. “But you have to keep hoping and holding on, thinking it's going to change."

Some smaller farms have been forced to close down – selling-off their cattle for slaughter.

Drought conditions plague much of the United States after a summer of scorching temperatures and a lack of rain. The dryness is affecting America's farmland, threatening crops like soybean and corn.

Franscka said he's sold 60 out of the 1,000 head of cattle he had at the start of the summer – to help pay the bills and keep the milk flowing until the rain does.

"You persevere day to day, and just try to do what you can do today to make it till tomorrow. Just keep praying to the good Lord that he's going to send some rain,” he said.

It’s a prayer that continues to echo across Missouri, and the entire Midwest. 

As the drought continues, ranchers worry for the future especially now that the total number of cattle in the U.S. is already the smallest in 60 years. NBC's Kristen Dahlgren reports.

More coverage of the drought: 

Drought sends Mississippi into ‘uncharted territory’ 

‘Best year ever’ for some farmers outside drought region    

Drought expected to take toll at checkout

Americans tell their story of #Drought2012 

In drought-stricken Wisconsin, farmers helping farmers  

Emergency well drilling brings relief to farmers stricken by drought

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