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February 06, 2012

Record Drought Takes Toll on Texas Cattle

by Greg Flakus

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the United States' cattle herd has shrunk to its smallest size in 60 years, mostly because of a severe drought that has ravaged the southern plains.  Beef prices have gone up 17 percent as a result.  In the pastures near Hallsburg,Texas, ranchers are hanging on desperately, hoping for rain.

Rancher Marc Scott once ran three times this many cows on his pastures, but when he saw drought coming last year, he began to sell them off.

"Probably between 60 and 70 percent of my herd is what I sold off," said Scott.  "I actually started a year and a half ago.  The conditions were getting drier and drier."

Scott says the main problem is the lack of grass and the expense of feed that he had to bring in from elsewhere.

"With the herd I had before there was no way I could afford to feed them all through the winter," added Scott.  "Now I have compacted my size and moved some off and now I can, hopefully, get through this with what I have left."

By "moving off some" Scott means he shipped some cows north to land he leases in states that were not affected by drought.  Now he faces the expense of bringing those cattle back when things get better.

There have been some good, all-day rains here in central Texas lately, and they have replenished stock ponds and restored moisture to the soil so it can produce grass.  Scott says this gives him hope.

"These rains we are receiving now, if we can receive those for another two or three months at least, then if it does get droughty during the summer, that will help carry us through," Scott added.

At Texas A and M University, livestock economist David Anderson keeps track of the state's overall herd and the sobering results of last year's record drought.

"We had the biggest one-year decline in beef cow numbers here in Texas as far back as the data goes, which goes back to 1920," said Anderson.

Anderson says some ranchers may see hard times if it does not rain a lot through the winter months.  He says converting pasture land to some other crop, like corn or wheat, is not an option in most cases.

"A large portion of our state is extensive pasture and rangeland that is just not suitable for other crops," Anderson added.

Anderson says Texas ranchers can only hope for rain and hang on until conditions improve.

But even for ranchers who may have the financial means to get through this drought period, it will take many years and a lot of work to rebuild the herds.

Marc Scott spends time maintaining fences and worrying about the dry summer that many climate experts are predicting for this year.

"It will drive a lot more people out [of this business]," Scott noted.  "You cannot continue to buy that feed for the cattle and come out at the end of it.  You cannot do it.  You have to be able to grow it"

Last year saw a 20-percent increase in U.S. beef exports.  Ranchers like Marc Scott would like to sell more cattle to foreign consumers, if they can get through this crisis with cattle to sell.