January 11, 2006

Texas Cattle Ranchers Hobbled by Drought, Fires

By Bob Burgdorfer

CHICAGO -- Texas rancher Pete Bonds would like to add cattle to his 7,000-head herd but the lack of grazing and the lack of water prevent it.

A drought in Texas and Oklahoma, one of the worst in nearly 100 years, has dried up creeks and ponds, depleted pastures, and fueled wildfires that have burned precious hay and grass.

The conditions have ranchers selling off breeding stock at a time when they should be expanding herds. Current prices have been profitable for nearly every level of the cattle industry, and during profitable times producers normally expand.

"We just don't have the grass to expand," said Bonds during a telephone interview this week.

The reluctance of Texas ranchers to expand could reduce cattle and beef supplies later, Bonds said. Texas is the largest cattle state with nearly 14 million head; Oklahoma is No. 4 with about 5.4 million head.

Another impediment to expansion is the higher cost of hay. Hay near Fort Worth cost $65 to $75 per 1,000-lb bale, more than double the normal $30 per bale, said John Merrill, who ranches near Crowley, Texas.

In addition, wildfires spring up without warning, endangering the few pastures and small amounts of hay ranchers do have.

"Any rancher or landowner out there is still losing a lot of sleep worrying about looking out the window and seeing his or his neighbor's place on fire," said Matt Brockman, executive vice president at the Texas Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.


While Texas and Oklahoma ranchers struggle with the drought, ranchers elsewhere are expanding using proceeds from high cattle prices, industry sources said.

"At this point, from a nationwide perspective, we are still going to see a 1 percent growth at least in the beef cow herd," said Jim Robb, an agricultural economist at the Livestock Marketing Information Center.

If the drought stays confined to Oklahoma and Texas it should not greatly affect future cattle supplies, said Robb.

"From a nationwide perspective, in the current state, the drought is not going to cause much of a disruption. If the drought expands and persists through the spring then it is going to be an issue," he said.


Forecaster Mike Palmerino at Meteorlogix said long-term weather models indicate rain- or snow-bearing storms could move into the drought-affected region late next week.

"There are hints that this could be the beginning of a change in pattern toward wetter conditions in the southern Plains," said Palmerino. "We will know more in the next few days."

Ranchers said it will take several storms before the pastures recover.

"A one-time, four-inch rain will not even come close to getting us out of the quandary we are in," said Brockman. "It will take numerous storms."

As of Tuesday, Palmerino said the area near Lubbock, Texas, had gone 74 days without measurable precipitation. That is the fifth longest dry spell for that area since 1911. The longest dry spell was 85 days, which ended in January 1922.