In the labyrinth of wooden pens behind the Farmers Livestock Exchange, hundreds of bellowing calves drowned out the steady hum of the auctioneer who was selling them by the pound.
Throughout Monday night and into the Tuesday morning, workers gently prodded the young animals into an arena where they were sold to farmers from Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Kansas. One 380-pound white calf bounded into the ring and within seconds went for 74 cents a pound.
August livestock sales in Winchester usually finish by dinner time. But for the past few weeks, they have been running long past midnight because the persistent drought has forced area farmers to sell hundreds of cattle that can't survive on parched pastures with streams that have run dry.
While prices are good--generally 65 cents to $1 a pound--farmers are bringing in less cash because they're selling calves that normally would be fattened up by the fall and weigh 150 to 200 pounds more at auction. Farmers in the direst straits are even unloading mature cattle they depend on to breed and replenish the herds.
Loudoun farmer Charles Light, who shipped 91 of his 150 or so cattle to auction this week, said it could take him years to restock his herd. But, he said, when the creek running through his Waterford farm turned from a trickle to stagnant pools, he had no choice.
"Last year was bad, but this is the worst I've ever seen it. If we don't hurry up and get some rain, the others will have to go too," said Light, 53.
"You can't beat this. Water is the lifeblood of the operation," said Robert Carr, a Waterford farmer who sold 72 sheep this week but so far has managed to keep his 250 cattle. "It's going to take a good many years for people to build back up, and you're going to see some nice farms grow houses that otherwise wouldn't."
While dwindling water supplies present the most immediate threat, livestock producers also are having trouble finding enough feed. Fields that usually can be grazed until late fall or early winter have been burned dry since July. As a result, people already have been dipping into hay and grain stocks intended to last through the winter.
"Farmers are faced with a desperate problem," said Tony Evans, emergency services officer for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "They're losing money if they sell, but if they sell them today, they don't have to feed them tomorrow."
Agriculture officials in Virginia and Maryland said they don't know exactly how many cattle have been sold this summer because of the drought but both states are helping farmers find feed producers. Maryland also is providing some cash to farmers who have had to haul water to maintain their herds. And federal funds are available to help farmers install pipes to bring in water for livestock.
At this week's Winchester sale, about 2,000 head were sold, compared with the usual average of 500, said auction manager Scott Stickley. In Frederick, Md., about 600 cows were auctioned this week, double the number sold in summertime sales most years.
Pennsylvania farmer Jacob Shank picked up about 16 calves at the Winchester auction, which went on until about 4:30 a.m. Shank, who buys about twice each month, said the animals are thinner than usual but none looked like they "went hungry."
"In October and November, this place will be a ghost house," Shank said as he watched the hundreds of animals paraded before him.
Early yesterday morning, at a farm outside Leesburg, dozens of cows munched on 1,600 pounds of hay that Chris Hatch spread in their pasture. Normally Hatch wouldn't even begin using his hay until December, but this year he started in July because the fields are brown. Even though he's sold 20 calves from his 150-head herd in the past two weeks, Hatch considers himself lucky. While the streams on his land are dry, his well isn't.
As he worked in the light rainfall, Hatch noted that recent rainfall will help perk up the grass but likely won't have a significant impact. Still, he held out hope. "We'll see what the future will bring," Hatch said. "Feels like these showers might break through."
Other farmers, including Robert Carr, have started to haul water to supplement their supply. Carr separated some calves from their mothers earlier than usual--so the mothers won't need as much food and water--and pumped 1,200 gallons from a pond at his Waterford home to fill their troughs.
But ultimately, the survival of his herd depends on a creek that rambles through his 500-acre farm near Waterford. At least three times a day, Carr checks the water, which usually runs two to three feet deep and now is barely as many inches.
"You never know when you're going to walk down there and see those ripples aren't moving anymore," Carr said. "If we can get some showers in the next week or 10 days, I'll survive. If I have to sell out, I'm not going back in."