Always rough, ranchers face new problems with the old

Darnell Brown

Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association

1301 W. Seventh St.

Fort Worth 76102


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Suggested pull quote: It’s a great life but it’s not an easy life. – Pete Bonds, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association

Beyond the pageantry and showmanship of cowboys and cattle raisers at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, ranchers and livestock producers struggle with myriad challenges that threaten their livelihoods and way of life.

Facing obstacles such as cattle theft, drought, commodity market fluctuations, tighter federal regulations on water and new development encroaching on grazing lands, the livestock industry is battling to stand its ground.

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“It’s a great life but it’s not an easy life,” said Pete Bonds, president of the Fort Worth-based Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and a life-long rancher based in Saginaw. “Young kids leave the ranch and don’t want to come back, and more and more family ranches are being sold and consolidated.”

“A lot of ranchers also have sold off to people who want ranches for hunting deer and quail rather than raising cattle and livestock,” he said.

Yet agriculture remains the second-largest industry in Texas behind oil and gas. Texas leads the nation in the number of farms and ranches with 248,000 farms and ranches spanning 130.2 million acres, according to Texas Department of Agriculture data.

Texas is also the U.S. leader in cattle production and cattle is the state’s top agriculture commodity, worth about $10.5 billion in 2012, the latest statistic available from the agriculture department. The food and fiber sector, including cattle, has an annual economic impact of about $100 billion.

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Throughout Texas’ history, farmers and ranchers have been plagued by drought and other weather-related problems, yo-yoing beef prices and cattle theft. The cattle raisers association was founded in 1877 by 40 cattlemen who were determined to stop cattle rustlers who were stealing their profits.

“Cattle theft has been going on centuries and continues to be a problem today,” said Larry Gray, executive director of law enforcement for the cattle raisers association, which has a membership of about 17,000 cattle producers who represent about 50,000 individuals in ranching who manage about 4 million head of cattle on 76 million acres of land mainly in Texas, Oklahoma and other parts of the Southwest.

The organization employs 30 cattle theft investigator in Texas and Oklahoma who are commissioned Special Rangers of the Texas Department of Public Safety or the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

Recently, the number of cases of cattle theft has fluctuated due to the availability of animals and the market price of beef. In 2011, about 13,000 cattle were reported missing or stolen, a record high in the five-year period from 2009 to 2014. Due to the drought, the supply of cattle dwindled as livestock was sold off.

In 2011, the association investigated 898 cases and recovered livestock valued at about $4.3 million.

The number of theft reports dipped for a short time but then beef prices skyrocketed, increasing the value of cattle. In 2014, the latest year for which data are available, 5,790 head of livestock were reported stolen or missing and 4,243 were recovered at a value of $5.7 million.

“The real high prices we were seeing for beef in 2014 and 2015 created a perfect storm for cattle theft,” Gray said.

The recovery rate for stolen animals can be as high as 75 to 80 percent if cattle are branded, Gray said. It is much lower for unbranded cattle, although market inspectors at cattle auctions statewide are always on site to record visual characteristics and ear markers of cattle, which can aid in recovering stolen animals.

“We have even cleared some cases through DNA tests if the theft victim owns the mother or sire of a stolen cow,” Gray said.

Gray said thefts are most prevalent in East Texas, where family-owned farms and ranches are more common than the sprawling commercial operations in other parts of the state. The larger ranches often have more sophisticated security systems and the vast pastureland makes it harder to round up cattle unnoticed, he said.

A disturbing trend has been the number of out-of-work oilfield workers and drug addicts who have been caught stealing cattle. The high price of beef turned cattle theft into a lucrative venture, Gray said.

“If someone steals a $1,000 TV set, they may only get $25 for it, but if someone steals a $1,500 cow, they are going to get $1,500 for it,” Gray said. Cattle theft is a third-degree felony in Texas punishable by two to 10 years in prison.

Besides cattle theft, the association represents the interests of cattle raisers and ranchers on crucial issues such as property rights and water supply.

“If ranchers don’t have control of their land and they don’t have access to water, it is very hard to raise cattle,” said Jason Skaggs, executive director of government and public affairs for the association.

Rapid population growth in Texas has put pressure on farmers and ranchers to sell their land for new housing and commercial developments. Those who try to hold on to generations-old family land have found that they are often unable to escape the onslaught of demands from development.

“A growing population requires more roads, electrical power grids, railroad lines and power lines,” Skaggs said. “That puts pressure on farmers and ranchers to sell or give up pieces of land for the public good.”

Those who resist selling often find themselves on the losing end of eminent domain battles with cities, the state or federal government. Landowners face similar battles with oil and gas operators who want to install pipelines across their property.

“Farmers and ranchers are by nature pro Texas and pro economic development but they work too hard to hold on and make a living off their land,” Skaggs said. “They want a level playing field.”

Water supply is another thorny issue for farmers and ranchers who must face off with cities and water districts that demand larger shares of the supply to meet the needs of growing populations. Farmers and ranchers are also battling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the proposed Waters of the United States rule that includes stock ponds and other surface water on private lands as “navigable” water subject to regulation.

“The federal government wants to regulate the rainwater that rolls off my hat,” Bonds said.

The cattle raisers association has joined with other opponents nationwide to try to block the rule from taking effect because they contend that it would further jeopardize the scarce resources available for raising cattle.

Despite the challenges, many ranchers and cattle raisers remain dedicated to their livelihood and the industry’s future, according to association officials.

“After the big drought a few years ago, our members began rebuilding their herds and trying to recover,” Skaggs said. “As an association, we are doing well and our members are optimistic about the future.”