Texas Drought Prompts Culling

17 Aug Texas Drought Prompts Culling

Posted on Aug 17, 2011 in

The Progressive Farmer

Texas Drought Prompts Culling
Ranchers Face Few Options With No Forage
Chris Clayton DTN Ag Policy Editor
Wed Aug 17, 2011 08:51 AM CDT

AMARILLO, Texas (DTN) — Cowboys at the Amarillo Livestock Auction spent the morning sorting old mama cows trailered in one or two at a time, along with a steady flow of lightweight calves that normally wouldn’t show up at a sale for at least a couple of months.
Jo Russell’s calves pile out of a trailer at the Amarillo Livestock Auction. These calves reflect the drought’s effect as producers are selling out calves that normally would continue putting on weight until mid-fall. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

“We got a lot of small calves in,” said Keith Parrott, owner of the Amarillo Livestock Auction. “We don’t usually see them this light or this early.”

Texas Panhandlers grew up with drought and they pride themselves on handling dry conditions. But you can’t find anyone who recalls any time worse than now.

“It’s a sad situation here. I’ve never seen it like this and I’m 59 years old and I’ve never seen it like this,” said John Graves, manager of the livestock auction. “They talk about the drought in the ’50s but I was just a kid then.”

The Amarillo area averages about 14 inches of rain through mid-August, according to the National Weather Service. It’s had about 2.6 inches this year.

Rivers such as the Canadian River north of Amarillo are bone dry. Meredith Lake, which provides drinking water to Amarillo and Lubbock, is at about one-third of capacity.

It hit 102 degrees Fahrenheit again Tuesday, Aug. 16. Some towns in western Texas went more than 60 straight days over 100F before seeing a break around Aug. 13 as a low-pressure system broke through and sparked sporadic rains across the state.

Clouds rolled through parts of the northern Panhandle on Tuesday night, but largely just teased people.

A rule of thumb here is that if you haven’t received at least your average May rainfall by July 1, that’s when producers start destocking, said Clint Rollins, a rangeland specialist at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amarillo. “You don’t just go out there praying for rain and hope it’s going to get better.”

Jo Russell of Shamrock, Texas, pulled in to Tuesday’s sale in Amarillo with 31 calves, all of which appeared lighter than 500 pounds. She and her husband have been weaning every calf that looks like it can handle itself.

“You really don’t know if you should sell them at 250 to 300 pounds or try to wait and see,” Russell said. She and her husband, Jarrell, have about 500 mama cows on their ranch. They are sacrificing some income with the calves to see if they can keep more of the cows. “We’re hanging on to them as much as we can, but it looks like we won’t be able to.”

Typically, those lightweight calves would continue grazing until mid-fall and come to market for backgrounding or go to feedlots if they are closer to 600 pounds. By selling out the calves, some ranchers are trying to save their cows and feed them forage that usually goes to the calves. Others simply can’t pull any more water from their wells.

“A lot of them can’t get stock-tank water now, so we are having some complete sale outs.”

Russell said one small saving grace was USDA’s announcement last week that grazing and haying are extended on Conservation Reserve Program land for another month. “That’s been a big help.”

Last week, USDA cut harvested hay acres in Texas 600,000 acres from last year to 4.5 million. Yield was cut even more, taking the state’s projected hay production to 5.4 million tons, or 47% less than last year.

East of Amarillo, Ken Gill has held on to his cows, but has spread them out over a much larger swath of land. He also has a small trucking company that has been busy everyday shipping away cows for other ranchers. He’s also hauling in hay from Colorado and Kansas.

“It’s high priced and tough to get,” Gill said. “It keeps going up every day.”

Good alfalfa being hauled in can cost $250 per ton, and then add another $50 to $60 to haul it from a distance such as Colorado. That’s more than twice the normal price.

A recurring comment is that the first key to rebuilding the cattle herd is grass. If there’s no grass it’s impossible to rebuild. Tall, mid and short-grass fields currently are yellow, brown or gray, much like the dead of winter. Any rain now might dab some green on the grass, but it would grow very little forage, Rollins said.

Producers can’t even think about putting cattle back on the land until the latter part of next summer, assuming 2012 spring rains occur.

“To grow forage, you have to have those April, May and June rains in 2012, and even at that, they are looking at a minimum of two years to get back to square one, the ones who have sent their cattle to the sale barns,” Rollins said.

David Anderson is part of a group of economists at Texas A&M trying to gauge the effects of the drought, including cattle culling. Statewide, the cattle industry hit a point last month in which culling became a necessity for almost everyone.

“I think it’s very common when we have a drought we reach that critical point for everyone about the same time and we get a big run of cattle, and that’s certainly what we’ve had here,” he said.

Texas producers were already slowly trimming the cow herd over the last five years because of high feed costs that were making production unprofitable.

It isn’t just the numbers at sale barns, but also a large volume of direct country sales, particularly beef cows going directly to slaughter. Compared to the 1996 drought when the nation’s cattle herd was at its peak, it doesn’t bode well for the future of the cow-calf herd in the state.

Through July, Texas producers were sending beef cows to slaughter at the same volume as the ’96 drought. If that pattern holds, Texas would start 2012 with about 450,000 fewer cows than it began in 2011.

“Through two weeks ago, this was the fastest rate as a percentage of cow slaughter, going back to 1984,” Anderson said.

Texas has never regained those ranching herd numbers from the mid-1990s. Those lost numbers have a ripple effect. Auction markets may see higher volumes now, but that will translate into fewer sales later in the fall. As the drought lingers, fewer cows simply turn into fewer calves to market a year from now.

“I think we’re going to have some very difficult times for our auction markets,” Anderson said. “Just the volume of animals, we’re going to have a hard time.”

It spills over into the state’s cattle feeders chasing fewer calves for bunk space and going farther to find calves.

“When we get to all of those allied industries of our cow herd, this drought is going to be felt for years to come in our cow numbers,” Anderson said.

Once forage returns, Parrott, who runs the livestock auction, said he will spend time trying to bring heifers and cows back into the Amarillo market and turn ranchers into buyers to rebuild.

“That’s what I think will be my next jobs to go out and find those cattle for my small customers who can’t go out there on their own and find cows,” Parrott said.

Chris Clayton can be reached at chris.clayton@telventdtn.com

(CZ/AG)

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