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Texas Ranchers Hit Hard by Drought Eye Rebuilding

January 6, 2014
South Texas
These cattle in South Texas had a lot more groceries this past fall compared to recent years.  

Source: Associated Press

After a dispiriting stretch of years, many Texas ranchers are optimistic as drought, expensive feed and other conditions that decimated their cattle herds start to loosen their grip. But rebuilding their herds will be neither cheap nor a short-term process, even in the nation's top cattle-producing state.

Texas lost 15 percent of its cattle — or about 2 million animals — between January 2011 and January 2013, as ranchers sold them to out-of-state buyers or sent them to slaughter amid an unrelenting drought. That helped the size of the U.S. herd drop to 89.3 million head, the lowest level since the 1950s.

Many ranchers are now interested in starting to rebuild, eyeing improving beef markets. But they're relying on several variables, the most important being reliable pastures, said Eldon White, executive vice president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

"It's going to be a slow, gradual increase as long as we have moisture," added Shawn Fryrear, who manages about 2,500 cattle on 10 ranches in Central Texas. "I feel like everyone is looking at the glass half full."

Ranchers also need females — especially pregnant heifers, which are now going for as much as $2,500 each, compared to $1,500 before the drought. Many ranchers sold more of their heifers, females that haven't had their first calf, and mother cows during the drought to save feed costs.

David Anderson, an agricultural economist with Texas A&M University, said he expects producers will hold on to more of their heifers but noted that ranchers have tough decisions.

"It's like a tug of war or a seesaw between a future return, from what that female would produce over her life, versus the price I would get today to sell her," Anderson said. "I think it's still up in the air how many they're really going to get to keep."

Ranchers in the driest areas aren't as keen to buy costly replacement heifers despite the economic incentives, including Rob Sandidge, whose herd west of San Antonio is about a quarter of the size it was before the 2011 drought.

"Those heifers are worth a lot of money, but that's what it takes to rebuild," he said.

But his water sources remain dry, so the 64-year-old plans to hold off building up his herd for now.

"We did grow some grass," he said last month. "We still don't have any (full stock) tanks, none of the creeks are running. We're just kind of holding on right now."

With the exception of West Texas, where the chances for rain through February are below normal, forecasters are offering equal chances for above, below or near normal precipitation for the rest of the state.

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