As Texas drought lingers, ranchers opt to reduce their herds

DALLAS (AP) — A growing number of Texas ranchers and farmers are trimming their livestock, or selling them altogether, as the persistent drought has eliminated water supplies and forage for the animals.

Some landowners describe a boom-and-bust cycle playing out with increasing frequency as one drought follows another: a rancher builds up his livestock but then must sell much of it as drought conditions drive up costs, only to then spend years building up the herd again as the drought subsides.

Forty-five percent of Texas is in a drought stage categorized as severe, extreme or exceptional, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and ranchers and others describe land bare of grass, bales of hay either too expensive or hard to come by, and stock tanks that have long run dry.

“If you don’t have the fire in your belly to produce food then don’t even try,” said Sam Snyder, a 65-year-old lifelong rancher who owns about 5,000 acres and leases another 10,000 near Abilene, about 120 miles (193 kilometers) west of Fort Worth.

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It’s been two years since his ranch saw enough rainfall to produce any runoff, Snyder said, and he’ll spend $50,000 this year — about double the price from prior years — on range cubes, which are a high-protein mix of corn, milo and other ingredients. He’ll also pay thousands on hay and other supplemental feed.

Snyder has spent previous years growing the size of his herd, but this summer he decided to thin the count by selling 50 cows at auction.

“We’re in a critical situation but it can get worse,” he said.

Josh Blanek with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Tom Green County, which includes San Angelo, said ranchers and farmers in his region are reducing their herds by at least 25 percent. This amounts to heavy revenue losses on cattle that could be sold for beef or other purposes.

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They’re selling older female cows and other livestock to buyers in states with plenty of rain and grass, such as the upper Midwest and eastern states.

Blanek said farms are entering a critical phase as the growing season only extends for another 45 days or so. If there’s enough rain in that time, then it will produce grass that could sustain a herd into the winter months.

Loren Sizelove, agriculture educator in the Oklahoma Panhandle for the cooperative extension service at Oklahoma State University, said his state isn’t seeing the liquidation of cattle being done in Texas. Although 32 percent of Oklahoma is experiencing drought categorized as severe or worse, Sizelove said there were sustained rainfalls in late spring that saved some wheat harvests and boosted grassland.

But in West Texas, rancher and farmer Marcus Halfmann said his land in Midland County has suffered from lack of rain and he decided to sell all his cattle. The price of hay bales doubled and other costs kept spiraling so Halfmann decided to fall back on cotton farming, which is providing steadier revenue.

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“The most important thing right now is to rebuild our infrastructure like our pastures,” Halfmann said. “We have to look to rebuild our pastures before we can rebuild livestock.”