Extreme drought and ever-increasing costs are presenting Texas cattle producers challenges they haven’t experienced in decades, said industry experts.
“The Texas cattle industry is simultaneously having to deal with drought, increasing operational costs and a declining cattle market,” said Dr. David Anderson, Texas AgriLife Extension Service livestock marketing economist in College Station.
A combination of factors is producing a perfect storm for many of the state’s cattle producers, Anderson said.
“Along with the drought, cattle producers are having to deal with near-record high corn and soybean meal prices and increased prices for other inputs,” he said. “Producers have had to provide much more supplemental feed and nutrition to their cattle, and costs for these have gone up dramatically in recent years.”
Anderson added that while fuel prices have gone down over the past several months, they still constitute a large expense for cattle operations.
“Feed costs remain high across the board,” he said, “and hay, which is grown locally, is also in short supply due to the drought.”
Dr. Larry Redmon, AgriLife Extension state forage specialist, said the current drought conditions are much like 2006.
"We have not cut the hay we normally would have for two reasons – drought and high fertilizer prices,” he said. “Not only is our hay crop down, but it also has lower nutritive value. Those who are feeding it are likely having to feed some supplementation.”
Forages that went into the dormant, winter season were already in a “stressed and short condition." Redmon said.
“As they come out in the spring, they may be slower to come on since there is hardly any moisture stored underground in the soil profile,” he said. “As we come out of the dormant season those stressed plants will put out a few shoots and cows will be standing right on top of them ready to graze them. If we don’t get some good rainfall and if managers don't carefully consider their stocking rate, warm-season pastures this spring will have a difficult time due to excessive grazing pressure and lack of moisture.”
Winter pasture mostly has been a failure, he added.
Recent reports of cattle dying due from drought-related circumstances in different parts of the state have further demonstrated the extent of those challenges producers currently face, said Dr. Rick Machen, AgriLife Extension livestock specialist in Uvalde.
"The cattle deaths in different areas of Texas are likely drought-related; beef producers have liquidated cow numbers and reduced stocking rates to balance forage supply and demand and avoid further losses," said Machen. “Forage availability is limited in many areas. Poor growing conditions and reduced nitrogen fertilization have resulted in lower-than-normal hay quality.”
Machen noted that the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory at Texas A&M is working to help determine additional steps producers may take to help prevent further cattle deaths related to the drought.
“The three Fs – feed, fuel and fertilizer – are the major costs associated with our cattle operation,” said Rachel Bauer, AgriLife Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources in Bastrop County, and a cattle producer. “Over the past year, our operational costs have increased significantly.”
Bauer, who lost several head of cattle due to drought conditions in that area, noted that these cattle were provided with supplemental feed and nutrients to keep them healthy.
“Unfortunately, sometimes cattle go beyond their ability to recover,” she said. “There have been limited supplies of hay, and feed costs are too high to make it economical for producers to provide grain to cattle throughout the year.”
Bauer added that many cattle ranchers are realizing they need more hay than expected to weather the long term and must prepare to grow sufficient forage for cattle to feed on this coming spring.
“They have to ensure the cattle are in good condition and healthy enough to breed,” she said.
“While things may look bleak for the cattle industry now, the longer-term outlook is much better,” said Anderson. “Many cattle ranchers have been reducing the size of their cow herd and putting themselves in a better position for the future. Once the economy improves, demand for beef will increase and so will the price.”