Gary Price is a rarity among cattle ranchers in 2013. He’s making money on his herd of 200 cows in this tiny town about an hour south of Dallas-Fort Worth. Mr. Price and his wife manage their land to help them avoid buying food and water for their cattle. Photo: By Brandon Thibodeaux / The New York Times

5 April 2013

BLOOMING GROVE, Texas (The New York Times) – Gary Price is a rarity among cattle ranchers these days. He’s making money on his herd of 200 cows in this tiny town about an hour south of Dallas-Fort Worth.

“The market is very good, and we’ve been able to keep what we’ve needed to buy, feed and such, to a minimum,” Mr. Price said, as he strolled in a pasture on his 77 Ranch, which is planted in native grasses, stands of mesquite and a fair number of what most people would call weeds. “That’s benefited us during this drought that has pushed prices higher.”

More typical are Don and Marilyn Smith, proprietors of the Starridge Land and Cattle Company about 100 miles northeast in Sulphur Springs. Mr. Smith has hung in, paring just 10 to 15 percent of his herd over the three years that drought has severely damaged this state, but it has not been easy.

“If we don’t get a normal rain this year, we will have to make some decisions,” Mr. Smith said.

The persistence of the drought here has forced ranchers to use all the creative techniques they can muster to survive. For some, it has meant knowing as much about land management and grass as they know about the bloodlines of their herds. King Ranch Blue Stem, for example, makes for great grazing but is invasive; Snow on the Prairie aerates the land but cattle will not eat it.

As Mr. Price put it, “You’re now marketing the grass through the cow.”

For others, it is knowing the right moment to sell calves or to gamble on something called “rain insurance.” The cattle herd nationwide is at its lowest level in 60 years, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Texas, the nation’s largest cattle-producing state. The Texas inventory of cattle and calves was 11.3 million on Jan. 1, a decline of 5 percent from a year earlier and the lowest level since 1967, according to the Agriculture Department.

The state’s beef cattle inventory fell even more, to 4.02 million head, down 12 percent from 2012, when similarly precipitous declines occurred. The sharp contraction, brought on by two years of drought in Texas followed by a year of drought across the Great Plains that drove feed prices sky high, has left some wondering if the state will ever again have herds as large as it once boasted.

Last year, when the Texas A&M University extension service offered a series of educational programs called “Rebuilding the Beef Herd,” it had trouble attracting any interest. “It just kind of stagnated because it never did rain,” said Ron Gill, a professor and extension service specialist. “It was all about preparing for when things got better, and they just haven’t.”

The situation is so dire that several times during a drive around his ranch, tears sprang to Mr. Smith’s eyes as he spoke about the challenges he has faced maintaining not only his beef herd, which now stands at roughly 130 cows, but also some remaining dairy cows. That business, too, is no longer profitable.

“We can get two inches of rain and, in 24 hours, it’s all dry again,” he said.

Mr. Smith needs 45 to 50 inches of rain a year to have enough forage to feed his herds and fill the “tanks,” as ponds in this part of Texas are called, from which the animals drink. In 2010, his 450-acre ranch got 16 inches of rain; the next year, it got 12 to 14 inches. Half of the 200 trees on Starridge Ranch when the drought started have died.

Before the drought, he made as many as 1,500 round bales of hay off his property, about a third of which he sold at a profit. He made just 46 bales in 2011 and had to buy the rest at $60 to $80 a bale.

Water, piped in from the municipal system, added $200 to $300 a month to the Smiths’ bills.

The higher costs of maintaining the herd forced Mr. Smith, like other ranchers, to sell his calves to feedlots at lower weights, which pinched profits but meant he spent less on feed and water.

The upshot? “We’re not doing any better now with $1,000 calves than we were at $600, ” Mr. Smith said. […]

Asked whether he thought the Texas cattle industry would ever recover its former glory, Mr. Price thought for a moment. “We’re all very concerned about the decline in cattle numbers and also about the losses of infrastructure, feedlots and slaughtering facilities,” he said.

Mr. Smith expressed sadness at what had happened to the business he loves. The Smiths have no children to take over Starridge, and Mr. Smith, who is 69 and has walked with the help of a cane since a battle with polio in 1949, worries about what will happen to it when he can no longer do the work to keep it going. “Beef will come back,” Mr. Smith said. “But who’s going to be left to produce it?” [more]

A Stubborn Drought Tests Texas Ranchers



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