Texas cattle ranchers face tough decision to cull or sell herds as drought deepens

A severe drought in 2011 decimated O.C. Fisher Lake in San Angelo, Texas. A new drought stretching across the state is showing some of the same characteristics.

AUSTIN, Texas – Sam Epperson, a fourth-generation rancher, studies the ground and sky each day from his vast ranch in south-central Texas. He’s hoping the skies open up soon and drop torrents of rain on his scorched land.

Lately, his cows, goats and ewes – about 5,400 animals total – haven’t had much to eat as the grass has shriveled and knotted. If conditions continue, he’ll be faced with the tough decision of whether to cull part of his herd.

“It is serious, but we’re in the dormant season,” Epperson, 65, said, meaning the grass still has a few months to grow in the spring. “Our real concern is what happens in a couple of months, and it does not look good.”

A deepening drought is afflicting a large swath of Texas, from the Rio Grande Valley to central and east Texas, once again putting Texas ranchers’ livelihoods in peril. Statistics released this week by the U.S. Drought Monitor showed 37% of the state in moderate drought conditions and about 11% of the state in severe drought. More than half of the state is abnormally dry, and parts of seven counties are experiencing extreme drought, according to the stats.

The dry weather patterns began last summer, said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist. Usually, winter is when Texas absorbs most of its moisture, thanks to cooler temperatures and steady rainfall, he said. But that hasn’t happened this winter.

One of the worst droughts on record for Texas was in 2011, when only an average of 15 inches of rain fell on the state, leading ranchers to send thousands of heads of cattle to slaughter, sucking lakes and rivers dry, sparking wildfires and amounting to $8 billion in losses for the state.

So far, 2020 has some of the same fingerprints of 2011, Nielsen-Gammon said. “You can’t have a year like 2011 unless you start off dry,” he said. “So far, we’ve started out dry.”

A lack of rainfall, especially in the second half of last year, deepened the drought conditions. Austin saw about 24 inches of rain from January to June last year, said Keith White, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Austin/San Antonio office. But from July to December, only 4 inches fell on the state capital.

Drought in Texas is usually most acutely felt by ranchers, whose animals subsist on sprawling non-irrigated grassy lands. As the grass dries up, ranchers need to choose to either invest in bringing in hay from elsewhere or bring down their herd numbers, said Jeff Savell, an animal science professor at Texas A&M University. As those numbers go down, Texas beef prices go up across the country, he said. Texas is the country’s biggest producer of beef, providing around 15% of the nation’s beef needs.

Gerald Nobles Jr. breeds cows and sells the calves from his ranch in Brady, Texas, about 130 miles west of Austin. He has watched in dismay as the drought shriveled the grass on his ranch and as his 300 heads of cattle grazed it nearly down to dirt.

If the grass gets too low, it could take even longer to grow back, threatening the long-term prospects of the business, he said. In September, he made the decision to sell off about half of his herd. Some went to a cattle auction in nearby San Saba, while others were sold to individuals.

If it doesn’t rain in another two to three weeks, he’ll likely sell off the rest of the herd, he said.

“When do you say ‘uncle’ and say, ‘I can’t take this anymore?'” said Nobles, 68. “We’re at that decision-making time right now.”

He’s not alone. There’s a lot of concern among other ranchers over the worsening drought, though ranchers haven’t quite reached the panic of 2011, said Jeremy Fuchs, a spokesman with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. That drought led to the total number of head of cattle in the state to drop from 13.2 million to 11.9 million. It took several years for those numbers to rebound, he said.

“it’s certainly beginning to be a concern,” Fuchs said. “It’s something that’s being watched very closely.”

Epperson, the rancher, said the grass on his 25,000-acre ranch is “down to dirt” and his animals are running out of areas to feed. He has been baling hay from a small irrigated hay farm he bought years ago to feed his animals. The 2011 drought was so withering, even the irrigated hay farm wouldn’t grow hay, forcing him to sell off 200 cows, or about half his herd.

He hopes this drought doesn’t reach those extreme heights, he said. He’s not so sure.

“It’s really tough,” Epperson said. “We can’t have false expectations of positive things happening right now.”


Credit to USA Today