(The Global Post video news story below features Nebraska rancher Suz Straka Luebbe, who is also one of the three landowner plaintiffs currently challenging the unconstitutional Keystone XL routing process in Nebraska. Read about the ongoing lawsuit here.)

Calamity Calling: Heartland Under Threat from GlobalPost on Vimeo.

Calamity Calling: Weird weather hits America’s breadbasket 

by , Global Post

STUART, Neb. — For lifelong rancher Susan Straka, 46, the most potent image of climate change isn’t a melting glacier or the rising sea.

It’s a burning cow.

At the height of a crippling drought last year, an errant spark touched off a vast wildfire near Straka’s ranch in the sand hills 200 miles west of Omaha. Fire consumed more than 300,000 acres of Nebraska’s plains in 2012, including one pasture where Straka and her neighbors failed to reach their cattle in time.

The mother-calf pairs were nearly dead when she found them, tails and ears scorched to stumps. Shooting the animals was an act of mercy.

“I used a rifle on the cows, a pistol on calves,” Straka said. Her voice caught and trailed off as she remembered, “To see things suffer like that … ”

She sat on the flatbed of her Chevy pickup, rubbing a calloused palm into her eye. A hardy soul who once rode out a tornado outdoors, on horseback, here she was, choking up in front of strangers.

Ranching has long been a trade for tough-minded gamblers, obliging producers to routinely bet their savings on future prices and patterns of rain. But in Straka’s view, Western Nebraska’s fiery dry spell in 2012 marked a shift to an entirely new game, where the weather has stopped following any recognizable pattern at all.

“We had two bad years of flooding and then got slapped in the face with two really bad years of drought,” Straka said. “We got people who never believed in climate change who are really scared right now.” (Watch the news report video above or continue reading on GlobalPost.com)