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Cattlemen Discuss the 2011 Drought in North Texas

story by Matthew Machacek

It has been well documented that the 2011 drought has been the greatest single year drought in Texas history. This is evident by the lack of forage production this year, and what has been produced is now dry and quickly fading away. This has left many cattle producers with some critical decisions to make, such as feed your way through this drought or sell livestock.

Earlier this month, I interviewed four experienced ranchers from Kaufman and Van Zandt counties, who have dealt with drought before, and gave first hand perspectives of the troubles facing ranchers in North Texas. My goal of this article is to highlight some of their past and present management strategies in an ever-changing marketplace. Let's face it, times are changing and this is evident from the 3 F's - Feed, Fuel, and Fertilizer, along with cattle prices compared to ten or twenty years ago.

Our discussion began as it normally does between most agricultural producers talking about the lack of rain. Jeff Hass, general manager for Hoodoo Land and Cattle Company, commented he received 16 inches of rainfall this year when we should have had 24 inches up to this point. "Some soil moisture was present in May, but 100 degree days and elevated winds quickly dried out soil moisture reducing the normal growth of our largest producer of forage, warm-season grasses," Hass said.

This does not seem like an extreme deficit, but Hass went on to add that the rain was not timely to growing conditions.

"Most of the earlier rains supported ryegrass growth, but stopped once the warm-season growth of Bermudagrass began," Hass said.

After discussing the lack of rainfall, I asked about reducing cattle numbers to match drought conditions. Jeff mentioned that he had two cowboys attend the Cattlemen's College at Texas A&M University, and they were told with current conditions everyone should be prepared to sell 25 percent of their herd.

"I have taken 17 percent off the top because they are old cows in the herd," Hass said. "I also plan to take it down to 25 percent in the fall once I conduct pregnancy checks."

The conversation quickly turned to replacement cost after the drought with speculation that replacement cow cost may rise upwards to $2,000. Roy Deen, a long time Van Zandt County rancher noted there is no telling what the cattle markets will do.

"Cattle may go to $2,000 for a while, but they will not stay at that level because people will stop paying for beef," Deen said. "The markets will eventually level out because a large number of cattle are being moved to pasture in the Northern and Eastern United States where conditions are favorable."

Later I asked about how this year compared to 1980. Dr. Casey Risinger, veterinarian and Kaufman County rancher said, "1980 was a rough year, but we did not run out of pond water." He added that 1995 was a tough year as well, but explained how he managed to keep livestock, for fuel was inexpensive at 80 cents. "In the 1980s we bought ammonium nitrate for $80 per ton, and today it's at $450-$500 per ton," Dr. Risinger said.

"Corn and other commodities were more affordable to feed cattle back then because fuel was cheap," Dr. Risinger said. "$3 fuel has affected his ability to cut hay, and this has driven up the price of commodities. Hay now cost $75 and I have never remembered a hay shortage like this."

Moreover, Tommy Cookston, ranch manager for the Silverthorn Ranch in Kaufman County, noted in the past we were always encouraged to maximize beef production per acre. "Cattle prices are higher today, but they have not risen near as much as our inputs," Cookston said. He also discussed some past workshops that discussed native grasses which do not require fertilizer inputs like hybrid Bermudagrass, and expressed interest in lowering input cost by this form of management.

Deen then discussed a Ranching for Profit workshop he attended with Kit Pharo. At this workshop, Pharo highlighted low input ranching by matching calving season with forage production, and explained how to match animal numbers with forage supply that eliminates supplemental hay.

"My father, at the age of 98, still runs cows like he has always done, and he runs a cow to ten acres with no hay," Deen said. "A lot of cattlemen run a cow to three acres to maximize production but end up feeding hay five months throughout the year."

I concluded our visit by asking each rancher what they had control of, and overwhelmingly each mentioned the stocking rate, and how many inputs we add to our operation. These seasoned ranchers are all making adjustments in their management to make it through this drought, and realize the marketplace will be different once the drought is over.

Today, many ranchers simply are running out of grass, and are faced with having to buy $75 hay if they choose to keep the same number of cattle next spring. One cow requires about one bale of hay per month when no other forage is available. This could mean that next spring a cow valued at $800 today, could cost you between $700-$800 to maintain until next spring with hay and additional supplementation. The same cow will need to bring $1,500 next spring to break even if you choose not to sell her today.

Therefore, the long-term forecast does not indicate us breaking this drought any time soon, for I do not know what next year will bring for cattle prices. However, I do know that pastures will need ample recovery time once this drought breaks.

In closing, forage is produced on the land which allows us to grow beef. If our soils are stripped of grass cover and plant residue, it will take longer to accumulate soil moisture that allows future forage growth. Plus, if cattle numbers are too high following this drought, forage growth will be delayed increasing the feeding cost for the operation while adding to the cost of each cow. I hope we receive rain soon to put an end to this drought, but hope is unfortunately not as effective as management matched to current conditions.

Even ponds that have have a history of being able to sustain livestock and wildlife in the grips of severe droughts are now going dry.

The extensive drought has dropped water tables, making even groundwater supply very limited.

Ranchers choosing to feed their way through this drought are forced to meet cattle forage demands by substituting hay for the lack of pasture forage. Dwindling hay supplies in Texas now cost two and three times as much as normal, and forcing many producers to purchase hay out of state. Soil erosion is a serious concern during an extensive drought. Plant material is removed, exposing the dry, bare ground to wind and water erosion.

Ranchers choosing to feed their way through this drought are forced to meet cattle forage demands by substituting hay for the lack of pasture forage. Dwindling hay supplies in Texas now cost two and three times as much as normal, and forcing many producers to purchase hay out of state.

Soil erosion is a serious concern during an extensive drought. Plant material is removed, exposing the dry, bare ground to wind and water erosion.

This dry pond represents a scene found all over the entire state of Texas. Many livestock in North Texas are losing condition due to the lack of adequate forage. Unlike this photo from Navarro County, the ranchers in this article have all made management decisions to protect livestock condition as well as maintain soil and forage resources.

This dry pond represents a scene found all over the entire state of Texas.

Many livestock in North Texas are losing condition due to the lack of adequate forage. Unlike this photo from Navarro County, the ranchers in this article have all made management decisions to protect livestock condition as well as maintain soil and forage resources. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Machacek)