Texas ranchers worried about drought conditions heading into spring

Cattle at Joe Freeman's ranch in Llano County. (KXAN Photo:
Cattle at Joe Freeman's ranch in Llano County. (KXAN Photo)

LLANO, Texas (KXAN) — The year 2011 had the most intense drought and hottest summer ever recorded in Central Texas. Now some cattle ranchers in the Hill Country are beginning to worry that they’re seeing indicators of conditions that may rival 2011.

“It’s pretty scary right now, really. It’s pretty dry,” says Joe Freeman, a fifth-generation Llano County rancher. His family has been working some of the same land since the late 1800s. The harsh summer of 2011 is “kind of burned” in Freeman’s memory. That year, the drought kept grass from growing, meaning Freeman struggled to feed his cows. He ended up selling off calves at a low price. Weak cows were sent to the meat packer.

“Oldest first, one that might have a bad back or a bad eye or something that you can make room for.”

But Freeman knows he is lucky. He saw some ranchers sell off everything in order to make ends meet.

“I had a lot of neighbors that went all the way to zero. I knew I couldn’t do that.”

The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association saw a four-year decline in cattle starting in 2011 that dropped herd numbers to the lowest they’d been since the 1960s. Though the drought was a disaster for ranchers, it brought a short-term benefit for beef consumers.

Number of Cattle
Texas: 12.5 million
Nebraska: 6.8 million

“When it’s a general drought and everybody has to sell down, you flood the market. You flood the market on anything, prices go down,” Freeman said.

Since 2014, with more rain, ranchers are recovering, but that has forced beef prices up. There are fewer cows to produce calves and it’s more expensive now to buy into ranching.

“You’d have to be a wealthy man to go buy cattle now,” Freeman said.

However, that cycle could quickly turn around again if the drought persists or worsens in the Hill Country. Freeman is already thinking about what he should do if this spring stays dry.

“It won’t really show up to me until we approach April. And that’s when hard decisions will have to be made, and they’ll have to be made pretty fast.”

Hard decisions like another culling.

David P. Anderson, professor and extension economist at Texas A&M, says consumers could again benefit if drought conditions continue past late spring. First impacts could be by late summer. Ground beef — usually made from older cows — is a year-round purchase for many Americans because it’s generally more affordable, so grocery stores may not slash prices on hamburger meat. However, you might start to see deals on nicer cuts of meat, like rib-eye steaks.

Reports from the United States Drought Monitor indicate that almost 65 percent of Texas is in drought, up about 8 percent from just the previous week and almost double since the beginning of the year. Cattle are spread all over the state, but some of the highest concentrations are found in the Panhandle, in feedlots where animals go to gain weight before slaughter. The Panhandle is the location of some of the most drastic drought in the state. The Climate Prediction Center predicts drier than normal conditions now through July 2018.

Courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor, valid February 6, 2018.


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