Ranchers throughout Texas have been suffering from drought for months, now many are taking their last option and moving cattle out of Texas.
As the fall months arrive without any signs of rain, thousands of head are leaving the state and the trend seems to be continuing according to Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA). The drought has made it nearly impossible for some producers to sustainably leave cattle in the Lone Star state. Cattlemen are sending cows to northern states like Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and eastern states like Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi.
"We’re into something not many men have ever seen," says Pete Bonds, Vice President of TSCRA. "Even if you look at droughts in the past it has rained some and this time it just hasn’t."
Bonds predicts over 10,000 cows will be relocated this month. He says that larger ranches are looking to make long-term deals and it is likely that the cows will never come back. The heifers may, but the cows likely won’t. Ranchers moving cattle are being forced to for two reasons - lack of grass and lack of water.
"You can’t leave cows here because there is virtually nothing left to eat," says Buzz Thorp, a rancher near Throckmorton, Texas. "Those cows are still going to be walking around, eating and suffering heat stress and that is going to be harder on your cattle and your ground. If you leave your cows here it’s going to take a lot longer for the land to recover."
Not everyone is relocating their mother cows though. Bonds says a lot of area producers are sitting on their hands praying it will rain this fall, not because they have no grass but because they have no water. Hoping that it will rain enough to run water, many ranchers are forced to just wait it out. Jay O’Brien a rancher in the panhandle, says that his ranches are going to be able to get through the winter so they are just hoping that rain comes soon, although he doesn’t predict a rain will cause the grass to grow any.
Thorp says that depending on where your ranch is located, the freight cost of shipping hay south is close to the cost of shipping all of your cattle north. As ranchers scramble to find pasture to put cows on over the winter they are doing their best to manage a lot of risk.
For those producers moving cattle north, calving in the winter is the dilemma. Bonds says that many of these producers haven’t seen cattle freeze to death before and their cattle haven’t been forced to survive a South Dakota winter either. Thorp says anytime cattle are asked to adapt to new environments, especially during periods of stress (like calving), there are inherent risks to the calf crop.
Bonds encourages producers to weigh their options carefully. "Two things have broke more people in this business - doing things the same way granddaddy did it and not doing things the same way granddaddy did it," he says. He continues that when granddaddy was in a drought he sold all but a few of his cows and when it rained he didn’t just buy the cattle back. Instead he kept back heifers and gave the grass adequate time to recover.
Bonds pressures producers to not underestimate the value calves will have this fall and next spring if the corn crop is good and to make management decisions accordingly.