Drought-stricken rancher: “It’s kind of like farming in the desert”

A relentless heat wave is building on the hardships faced by ranchers and ranchers who have endured up to two years of drought in the western US, causing some to sell cattle at an ever-faster pace.

Severe drought last year forced 40% of farmers to liquidate a portion of their herds, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. This year, that percentage could be even higher. The latest figures from the US Department of Agriculture showed the country’s stock of cattle and calves at 98.8 million head as of July 1, down 2% from a year earlier.

Most of Texas and Oklahoma have some measure of drought killing pastures where cattle graze and depleting ponds and ponds that in the past were refilled with rainwater, according to David Anderson, professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M.

Conditions are forcing some to sell all or part of their herds ahead of schedule, decisions with future ramifications for ranchers, ranchers and Americans who eat beef.

“If I have to sell my cows, they won’t be around next year to have a calf for me, so I’m really cutting back on my ranch,” Anderson told CBS MoneyWatch.

Selling cattle before they’re fully grown means the animals weigh less, so the rancher is selling fewer pounds and earning less revenue, while forgoing a future source of cash, Anderson said. “We are selling much more than just these animals. We look at the statistics and ranchers have been selling more and more throughout the year,” he added.

The impact on the country’s beef production is likely to be felt next year and into 2024, as it takes 18 to 20 months for a calf to reach its full weight, Anderson said.

“Drought impacts have accelerated markedly in the southern plains,” wrote Derrell Peel, an extension cattle marketing specialist at Oklahoma State University, in an emailed report Monday.

The percentage of ranges and ranges in the state that rate from poor to very poor rose to 34% from 18% earlier in the month, with livestock producers “rapidly running out of supplies as rangeland conditions rapidly deteriorate,” Peel wrote. . He pointed to anecdotal accounts of auctions and cow slaughter plants in the southern plains overwhelmed by the volume of cattle sales.

Russell Boening’s dry ground sorghum grain on June 15, 2022. “It was a total failure,” he said.

Russell Boening

Large swaths of the western US are in a megadrought that scientists have called a the worst in 1200 years. In Texas, triple-digit temperatures persisted for weeks, depleting the water and burning the grass needed to feed the herds of cows and accelerating sales decisions.

“It’s like farming in the desert,” Russell Boening, a farmer and rancher in Wilson County, Texas, told CBS MoneyWatch. “Normally we would still be harvesting corn or sorghum grain, but that was over a week ago,” Boening added of the crops grown as feed for his livestock. “It was a total failure,” he added.

Russell Boening’s dry land grain sorghum harvest on June 15, 2021.

Russell Boening

“We usually have some to sell, as a commercial crop, but that will be quite limited this year,” he said, noting that his corn crop is down 65% from normal because of the heat and lack of rain.

“This will affect the supply of beef”

“A good rancher will do his best to feed them or send them to town, because that’s the right thing to do,” Boening said of the decision to sell the cattle at auction. “Some culled 10%, some culled half,” said Boening, who is also president of the Texas Farm Bureau.

“It will affect the beef supply; I think there is no doubt about that,” said Boening, whose operations include about 350 beef cows and 450 dairy cows.

“Last year was dry, this year is dry too, so there are cumulative effects,” said Jimmy Taylor, a fourth-generation farmer in Berlin, Wyoming.

A local auction held near Cheyenne, Wyoming, last week had nearly double the usual count of cows and bulls for sale, Taylor said. “Any [ranchers] grass ran out, some ran out of water, and instead of trying to buy hay, which is virtually non-existent here now,” many of her neighbors are selling, Taylor said.

Taylor bought hay over the winter, allowing him to continue feeding his cattle even when he lost several pastures to drought.

Still, even that decision came with a risk, as stocking grass in dry conditions increases the chances of wildfires. Taylor experienced this danger firsthand in April, when a wildfire that started about eight miles away burned a small portion of his 12,000-acre ranch before it was contained.

“We are more alert in these high fire risk days, but as far as prevention is concerned, there’s not much we can do,” Taylor said.

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