[Vision2020] How's that working out for you in Texas, Rich?

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Sat Sep 3 12:50:07 PDT 2011

Rick Perry Wants To Leave Government 'In God's Hands,' Says 'God, You're Gonna Have To Fix This'

How's that working out for you in Texas, Rich?

Drought puts cattle ranchers at a crossroads


Most of his cows have gone to slaughter, and the goats have been sold off. But if rain doesn't soon fall on the parched plateau of West Texas, rancher Sam Epperson may be looking for a new line of work.

Sam Epperson feeds hay to his horses.

By Mark Sobhani, for USA TODAY

Sam Epperson feeds hay to his horses.

"I might be driving a truck," says Epperson, a fourth-generation rancher who runs his family's 100-year-old cattle business near Rock Springs, Texas. "I don't know what we'll do. It's that serious."

A blistering, record-setting drought in Texas and other parts of the USA paired with high temperatures and the soaring cost of hay have made it one of the toughest seasons ever for cattle ranchers.

  a.. PHOTOS: Texas drought tough on ranchers
Texas has seen only 7.5 inches of rain this year through August, says state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. The previous record low for January-to-August moisture in Texas was 10.56 inches in 1956. The last significant rainfall was in September 2010, he says. "It's the worst one-year drought ever," Nielsen-Gammon says.

The lack of moisture means millions of acres of scorched, inedible grass for the state's cattle, says David Anderson, a livestock economist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service at Texas A&M University. This year, Texans have lost $5.2 billion in crops and livestock to the drought, surpassing the previous record of $4.1 billion in 2006, he says.

Faced with starving cattle, ranchers must decide whether to buy enough hay to keep the livestock alive through the drought or sell them off at local auctions, Anderson says.

Texas is the USA's largest producer of beef cows - an estimated 5 million cattle, or 16% of the nation's supply, he says. More than 400,000 of those are expected to go to slaughter this year, he says.

"We're looking at what can be an historically large reduction in the cow herd," Anderson says.

The drought also has spread north of Texas. In Kansas, where more than 90% of the state is experiencing some level of drought, federal officials have allowed ranchers to graze cattle in conservation land usually off-limits to livestock. And ranchers in Oklahoma are bringing record numbers of cattle to slaughter as the state's grazing tracts have dried, says Scott Dewald, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association. "It's going to be tough in this business for awhile," he says.

The drought is most pronounced in Texas, where three-fourths of the state is experiencing "exceptional" drought, the severest classification by the U.S. Drought Monitor, produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies. Texas ranchers also are bringing cows to slaughter in record numbers.

Wayne Geistweidt, owner of Gillespie Livestock in Fredericksburg, Texas, is selling 2,500 to 3,000 cattle a week, including young cows he would ordinarily keep. Selling young cows brings less money than adult cows and leaves fewer to sell in coming years, he says. The next few years will be extremely difficult with a smaller herd and a shortage of young cows, he says.

"It's the worst I've ever seen," Geistweidt says. "No grass, no water. It's going to put a lot of people out of business if something doesn't change."

Under normal conditions, the Decatur Livestock Market, about an hour outside Dallas, sells between 250 and 400 cattle a week, says Mickey Scarborough, operations manager. On Monday, the auction house sold 1,200. 

The ranchers are also bringing in 3- and 4-year-old cows to sell, a sign of troubled times, Scarborough says. "If they're selling those now, they're selling the last things they got," he says.

Some are quitting the business altogether. A recent survey of its members by the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association found that respondents had sold off 40% of their cattle inventory, compared with 5% to 10% on a normal year, says Joe Parker, association president. Also, 10% said they sold off all their cattle and left the industry.

The plight of Texas ranchers has prompted hay donation drives in states such as Louisiana and Iowa. Duncan Freche, 54, organized other worshipers at his church in Hammond, La., and began shipping hay to Texas ranchers last month. The group so far has donated 500 large bales of hay - about 5,000 pounds.

"It's terrible what's happening out there," says Freche, a retired state worker who owns 15 cows. "I can't imagine what it's like."

Little relief is on the horizon. The drought is a result of La Niña, a weather phenomenon that makes surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean colder than usual and pushes tropical thunderstorms east past Texas, Nielsen-Gammon says. September is one of Texas' wettest months and some rain is possible, he says. But it will take several large rainstorms to break the drought.

As the drought shriveled the acres of sideoats grama and bluestem grass on his property, Epperson, 57, was forced to sell off all but 90 of his 400 cows and 800 of his 3,000 goats.

If rain doesn't come by mid-September, Epperson says, he may have to sell off his remaining cows.

"We're just trying to figure out what to do," he says. "You wonder how in the world this is all going to work out."


Wayne A. Fox
wayne.a.fox at gmail.com
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