Heavy Spring Rain Helps Texas Pastures, Cattle Outlook

June 17, 2015 12:17 PM
 
Heavy Spring Rain Helps Texas Pastures, Cattle Outlook

One of the wettest springs on record is keeping Dwain Mayfield and his ranch hands busy.

In a back pasture on his Erath County ranch, the tall, green Tifton 85 Bermuda grass is being bailed into hay.

Out by the front gate, the headwaters of Green Creek are flowing like a Colorado mountain stream as some of Mayfield's cattle cool off in the water.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that for a rancher like Mayfield, 77, it's a welcomed change of pace from more than four years of drought. But it doesn't mean he's going to change the way he does business.

"We're not going to do anything dramatic other than be thankful that we've seen the land replenished," said Mayfield, a retired Lockheed Martin vice president who now ranches full time. "I think we may be in a period of recovery."

Even during the worst period of the drought, he was able to irrigate his pastures so he wasn't forced to do any massive selloffs. Parts of the ranch have been in his wife's family going back 140 years.

"We just held steady," Mayfield said.

Like many ranchers, Mayfield reduced the size of his cattle herd during the drought. With the improved conditions, he plans to keep his herd around 200 head of cattle and slowly replenish his stock.

He also expects some of his fellow ranchers to be in a buying mood. That's why Mayfield will sell a few of his certified Angus heifers for those wanting to rebuild their herds.

"Instead of going to the feedlot with them, we will sell them as bred heifers for someone who is looking to expand their herd and wants known genetics, ranch raised," Mayfield said.

Saginaw rancher Pete Bonds, president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, said some ranchers will start rebuilding but he's taking a wait-and-see approach.

"What concerns me is this: Is this just a wet spell and will it continue to be a long-term drought?" Bonds said. "We'll increase our numbers but we're not going back to where we were."

Before the drought in 2010, there were 13.3 million cattle in Texas, the most in the nation.

By 2011, the numbers had dropped to 11.1 million. But as conditions improved last year, that population had climbed back to 11.8 million at the start of the year, which still leads the nation.

Despite the rains, Bonds said many of his pastures still haven't recovered from years of drought.

"Some of the grass still isn't all the way back," Bonds said. "2011 really hurt."

Yet Bonds will admit the recent turn from dry to wet has been a godsend for ranchers.

The rainfall totals this year are stunning:

— 31.63 inches of rain have fallen at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, which is 13.45 above normal. Only 21.32 inches fell all of 2014.

— 25.05 inches of rain fell this spring — March through May — which is tied for No. 2 all-time.

"I do not know a dry spot in Texas and that's not normal," Bonds said. "In far West Texas, it's the best spring they ever remember. South Texas is in great shape. It's ungodly."

For those who want to expand, it would take about three years to rebuild their herds and drive down prices, Bonds said.

"The cows are fat," Bonds said. "Things are good. People are going to be looking to increase their numbers."

Yet Kerry Cornelius, director of the Texas Christian University Ranch Management Program, said the high cost of cattle may pose a risk for ranchers.

"I would caution producers to run the numbers," Cornelius said. "At a time when replacement numbers are so high, it may be a good investment or not. Every time cattle prices have gotten high, we've gotten to a point where producers have overpaid."

Gary Price, whose 77 Ranch straddles the Navarro-Ellis County line near Blooming Grove, is planning to replenish his herd but keep it at roughly 300 head of cattle. Like Cornelius, Price believes the cost may make it difficult for many ranchers to buy new stock.

"The replacement costs are terribly high," Price said. "Each person is going to have put a pencil to it. It's really an individual thing. The economics are pretty scary."

During the drought, Mayfield and his assistant, Jesse Boone, had to bring an old well back to life and were watching stock tank levels daily.

Boone is an Army veteran who spent a year in Afghanistan and then came home to earn a wildlife management degree at Tarleton State University. He said Mayfield's ranch was able to get through the drought relatively unscathed by rotating cattle between pastures.

"A lot of the cattle business is all about grass," Boone said. "If you've got good grass, you've got good cows and if you've got good cows, then you've got good grass. We really try to live by the take half, leave half mentality. You don't ever want to graze it all the way down to the ground because the weeds will come in and your more desirable grasses kind of go away."

That doesn't mean everyone else will heed that advice. Some ranchers likely can't wait to buy more cattle.

"When there's grass growing, they see a need to have something eating the grass," Mayfield said. "I think there will be a natural rebuilding of herds. Now it may not be dramatic but I think it's slowly going to happen."--Bill Hanna, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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