The U.S. beef industry lost an estimated $13.6 billion by early April this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. And many ranchers in northeastern Oklahoma have been forced to adapt to new ways of doing business.

Bill Gibson has been an agent with the Cherokee County Farm Bureau, an advocate organization for farmers and rancher, for 30 years. He said the main problem the past couple of months has been the price fluctuation.

"The market is wild. It's making it hard on everyone," said Gibson.

He said one week, the price could be $1.25, and the next $1.45, with it going back down the following week.

Factoring prices and expenses, Gibson said even hay is affected. When trying to get hay, it helps to know how many cattle will need to be fed. If the price on cattle goes down and a rancher decides to hold onto the animals, more hay will be needed to feed those cattle longer.

Bruce and Melanie Ragsdale, who own Blackrock Livestock, said the challenges they face started before the pandemic, as cattle prices have continued to fall on stockers, feeders, and the live cattle market.

"As the pandemic hit, there seems to have been a shortage of hamburger meat, which has abnormally driven the retail prices through the ceiling, while we as producers are still getting below even average prices," said Bruce Ragsdale. "Until the market shows a true cycle, it is extremely hard to assess a way to alter our business."

As a fourth-generation rancher, Wade Hampton, 54, has been involved all his life He operates H5 Feed and Hampton Ranch in Westville, Oklahoma, raising beef cattle and quarter horses and selling feed, fertilizer, ag and animal health products. Hampton normally sells cattle by the semiload at the Benton County Sale Barn.

"Lately, since COVID hit, I really went to selling a lot of beef directly to the consumer," he said.

He posted on Facebook about selling half and whole cattle, and the response was greater than he expected.

"A lot of people are wanting to become more self-sufficient, and not depend on the grocery store. They were running out of meat," Hampton said.

He said he's selling about the same amount while cutting out the middleman. Around 75-80 percent of people who have bought from him recently said they had never purchased beef that way.

"You have to help them through the whole thingt," he said. "I'm trying to find all the rules, regulations, and details to build my own processing plant."

Ragsdale has noticed many people are selling cattle in a "custom kill" operation.

"I hear a lot of people upset about beef prices in the stores, and it's not the ranchers who are benefiting. As a matter of fact, it's about as gloomy as ever, but I would encourage the public to not give up. Beef is still 'what's for dinner,'" said Ragsdale.

The meat packing operations caused some of the issues.

"The meat packers lost a third of their staff. The cattle were backing up in the yards, and that caused problems with ranchers," said Gibson.

Hampton said the packers robbed the ranchers and consumers with not being able to produce, and for fluctuating prices.

"You don't get to set the price. It's not like any other business," said Hampton. "You can control what you buy and where you buy it, but you don't have control over what you get."

Gibson said he's applied for a Farm Service Agency program, which gives money dependent on sales in January through April.

"We're trying to get the money for that four-month period," said Gibson. "Every little bit helps."

Hope for the ranch life continues, as families stay the course through the hurdles.

Hampton is maintaining the family ranch. He has three daughters and three sons-in-law, as well as his 80-year-old father, to help.

"It's a wonderful way of life and I wouldn't change it. It is stressful. Very few people in it are not in debt. Most ranchers don't have a 401(k); they have stuff, land, tractors," said Hampton.

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