The suffering caused by the current drought is difficult to imagine until you've stood over the carcass of fallen cattle rotting in the dust of a dried-up water hole, and heard a rancher describe the struggle he's been thought trying to hang on to his livelihood.

In place after place, in an area stretching hundreds of miles, they'll tell you what it's like to see prized cattle and sheep starving to death. Even lifelong ranchers -- leather-skinned optimists at home with the risks involved in living close to the land -- have never spoken so despairingly of their own prospects for survival.

One sees herds of cattle so emaciated they look like standing skeletons. Nothing relieves the sinking feeling brought on by the sight of a buzzard sitting on a post as if waiting for the sheep standing nearby to die.

The severity of the drought in 27 farm states, the worst dry spell for American agriculture in 50 years, has been measured by a steady flow of reports and statistics. Those figures alarming in their own right, tell only part of the story.

Up close, it hits you in the pit of your stomach in a way that it never will sitting behind a desk.

Agriculture Secretary John Block declined a tour of the parched, barren ranching country of West Texas last week. His presence would have meant a lot to the ranchers I visited.

Anyone who has seen the devastation and suffering would understand better why there has been such widespread criticism of federal decisions not to provide more assistance to the victims in this crisis. A day spent in the scorching sun, a breath of dust in your lungs, or one conversation with a desperate rancher might convert the most dispassionate viewer.

In Chicago earlier this month, in the comfort of a hotel, elected officials from all the major farm stats met with Block to discuss the drought. The USDA's presentation at that meeting may have convinced some people that the administration is doing all it can to provide disaster relief. Yet, not one person came up to me in West Texas the other day and said "Mark, USDA is going to help us make it through and I appreciate what they're doing." No one said anything of the sort.

They said their cattle, sheep and goats need something to eat. They pointed out animals trying to get past the thorns on cactus for something to chew on. I heard them talk how even the mosquite trees, among the most drought-resistant plants on Earth, are dying from lack of moisture for miles and miles around.

Zelba Juarez, a 4th grader from McCamey, gave me a letter that said, "We had some rain when I was in the 1st grade. We need some grain -- and cheap. " Another letter, signed, "Kendra" said, "We need rain. Our land is dry. Our sheep are dying."

"It's like watching a loved one die," said Bill Sims of San Angelo, a veteran rancher.

Bill Honaker of Fort Stockton told me that after 32 years of ranching and having all kinds of problems, he has cut his cow herd from 1,028 head in January this year to 319 animals. His feed bill, he said, increased from $4,628 in 1982 to more than $30,000 during the first eight months of this year.

Beef and veal prices haven't risen yet. But food prices already are going up as the drought takes its toll. The cost of grain also is becoming prohibitive, and as a result many ranchers are slaughtering more cattle because they can't afford to feed them. It's foolish to believe tht greater supplies of beef and lower prices now are anything but illusory. Six months from now customers will be hit with sharp increases in meat prices as supplies run short.

Ranchers are going to lose their shirts as quickly as their breeding stock dies either on the ground or in the slaughterhouse. A rancher such as Honaker, who has built a breeding herd over many years under favorable conditions, isn't going to bounce back again quickly.

That's one of the reasons there is so much frustration and underlying loss of faith among the people and ranchers of the plains. They don't understand why the USDA won't authorize the Emergency Feed Program established by Congress and release the tons of deteriorating surplus grain stored in the Texas Panhandle. That corn, which before long will be of such poor quality that it won't be worth anything, is costing taxpayers $5 million a year in storage fees. It would feed the starving cattle of West Texas until next spring, and help keep the ranchers going.

Agriculture is a risky business; propserity comes and goes with the weather. Unlike most fluctuations, however, this situation is grim, and it will hurt the national economy. It isn't just the ranchers and farmers who will suffer, but the truck and tractor salesmen, the farm equipment manufacturers, the distant steel mill, the steel worker and untold others. If that isn't justification to hoist the "safety net" and provide some fair protection to the guy at the end of the rope, then we need to go back and re-examine the concept of government.

The people of West Texas, as in many other farming communities, aren't suffering because they are poor planners or lack an understanding of the business they're in. What may be lacking is an understanding at the USDA of what the statistics really mean.

It isn't enough to tell ranchers that grazing and harvesting of hay has been approved on acres that were supposed to be set aside under the PIK program, when there is nothing growing now in that sparse area. And more federal loans at interest rates of 8 to 14 percent don't provide such hope to a producer who is already up to his hat in debt.

I've not requested any programs that aren't already on the books, only the authorization to use those that are: disaster payments that wuld enable farmers and ranchers to pay existing debts; emergency payments to help pay the feed grain necessary to sustain livestock until next spring; and immediate release of federally owned low-grade corn stored in the Panhandle.

there isn't a lot more anyone can do. Not to do all that one can is unimaginable.