Pasture and range condition in the drought-stricken western states is anything but pretty. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor Index, at least half of Texas, two-thirds of Oklahoma and Kansas, nearly all of New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, and all of California are in severe to exceptional drought.
New Mexico’s pasture and range is in the worst condition, with 71% rated poor to very poor. California is second with 65% in similar condition, followed by Arizona with 54%. The other states are showing between 41% and 45% of their pasture rated poor to very poor.
Texas and Oklahoma, particularly the panhandles and other parts of West Texas, have been battling drought the longest, since October 2010.
"Range conditions are short as you move west of I-35, but one of the big issues besides being out of grass is that tanks are near dry," says Stan Bevers, agricultural economist with Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension in Vernon, Texas.
These earthen holding ponds provide drinking water for livestock. Each day a cow drinks between 7 and 14 gallons of water.
"If you have a pasture of 100 cows, you cannot haul water to that many animals," says Bevers. "Once you are out of water, you are done."
In the droughtiest part of Texas, most of the cows have already been shipped to slaughter or to another part of the country for feeding.
"We have a few diehards," says Bever. "They can now look around to see if there is someplace to send them, which will be expensive, or they can send them to market and get out of the cow business. It’s a tough choice."
Currently cull cow prices are over $1 per pound because demand for beef has remained high despite record-high prices.
"In a normal drought, we would see fire-selling for 30 cents a pound. Everyone would flood the market with cows," Bever adds.
The feeder cattle market is booming. On May 19 at an auction in Oklahoma City, 11,000 head from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Kansas were sold to buyers in northern states planning to turn them out on grass, says Tess Norvell with USDA’s Market News.
The steers weighed between 550 and 600 lbs. and sold for between $2.17 and just under $2.29 per lb., Norvell says.
In California, alfalfa growers in the San Joaquin Valley have either let their hay fields go dormant, or if they have water, they are continuing to irrigate, but prices have soared. According to John Gittlein, with USDA’s Market News in Greeley, Colo., lower-quality hay is bringing $270 to $290 per ton, while dairy-quality hay is nearing $350 per ton.