Cattle producers face decisions as drought intensifies

Texas Crop and Weather Report – Nov. 24, 2020

Adam Russell, AgriLife media

November 27, 2020

7 Min Read
Weighing winter feeding costs with potential price gains in March and April can mean tough decisions for some cattle operations during drought.Adam Russell, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

Drought conditions and a drier-than-normal winter has put cattle producers in a common dilemma – try to preserve herd size with supplemental feed or cull to stretch limited forage resources for quality cows and calves, said Jason Banta, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension beef cattle specialist, Overton,

Fall and early winter sales and culling is an annual part of raising beef cattle, Banta said, but the dry conditions will present difficult decisions for many producers around Texas.

The decision to make above-normal herd reductions is made less palatable by lower cattle prices, Banta said. But drought and an expected drier and warmer winter could necessitate decisions that will ultimately impact producers’ bottom lines.

Cow and calf prices vary by size, class and locations around the state, but overall statewide beef cattle prices are slightly lower than at this time last year, Banta said. Prices should be rebounding a bit as the industry exits a seasonal dip, but it’s time for producers to weigh potential cost-benefit scenarios associated with maintaining herd numbers through winter.

“Producers need to take a hard look at their herds,” he said. “It’s hard to feed your way out of most droughts in general, and this year is no different especially at current calf prices. Cattle prices will likely increase a little moving forward, but producers need to ask themselves if it will be enough to make up for the additional costs of feeding them until spring green-up.”

Banta said producers in drier areas of the state should consider their hay stocks and begin looking to sell older animals or cattle that might be culled for other reasons. Considering the expected winter weather, it likely makes economic sense to move some of those cattle.

It’s important for producers to inventory their available forage, whether hay bales, stockpiled pasture or other winter supplementation, and make decisions that will allow them to stretch those resources, he said.

“Some producers are and will be tempted to try and hold cattle until prices go up, because market cow prices generally do go up in March and April,” he said. “But they need to consider what it will cost in feed to hold them and whether that potential price increase is enough to offset the expense.”

Cattle producers around the state

Banta said historically, the spring price increase does not justify the expense associated with hay bales and other nutritional supplements needed to maintain body condition.

Banta said drought conditions this year were affecting producers in Central and West Texas and parts of the Panhandle and South Texas, but that water, hay and forage conditions were fair overall.  

Much of Central and East Texas produced decent amounts of hay this season and that hay production will help many producers, he said. AgriLife Extension agents in South Texas reported hay bales were fetching $50-$65 in mid-November and that producers were stocking up.

“It is pretty rough for some producers in certain parts of the state, but then you have other parts of the state that are faring better when it comes to hay production and even expectations for winter forages.”

AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:



Temperatures were warmer than normal for this time of year. Dry conditions continued, and no measurable rainfall was recorded. Soil moisture levels were very short and continued to decline. Planting operations were at a standstill due to dry seedbeds with mid-December crop insurance deadlines looming for winter wheat. Early planted winter wheat that had emerged showed variable plant stands and were in fair to poor condition. None of the small number of other acres planted had enough moisture to germinate. Producers were considering whether to skip planting winter wheat in favor of spring-planted sorghum. The precipitation outlook over the next week was bleak. Pastures were showing drought and were going dormant. Most fieldwork and field preparation was complete or ahead of schedule. Livestock were being fed hay.   


Conditions were warm, dry and windy. Winter wheat planting was wrapping up, and emerging wheat looked good. Stocker cattle were being placed on early planted wheat fields. Cattle producers continued to provide supplemental feed in areas with limited grazing.


Conditions were hot and dry, and the 10-day forecast offered little chance of rain. Some producers were fertilizing fields. Some were using dry fertilizer with phosphorus and potassium and will come back later to add nitrogen. Winter pastures were suffering from drought stress. Further planting of winter wheat and spring wheat was expected to be delayed until December, pending moisture. Some areas have standing forage because of conservative stocking rates, but forages were not high quality, so hay feeding and protein supplementation continued. Local livestock auctions were still reporting large runs of cattle. The pecan harvest continued with good yields being reported.


Drought conditions worsened throughout much of the district. Subsoil and topsoil conditions were short. Ponds and creeks were drying out rapidly. Rainfall was needed to get winter forages going. Anderson County reported higher calf prices. Livestock were in fair to good condition with some producers providing supplementation. Wild pigs caused damage to many pastures, croplands and landscapes.  


Farmers were finishing up cotton stripping. Local gins finished ginning approximately 50% of the crop. Most gins expected to complete operations by the end of December. Winter wheat emerged across much of the district but needed rainfall soon. Cattle were on supplemental feed due to bare pastures. Cattle were in good condition.


Topsoil and subsoil moisture levels were adequate to short throughout the district. Cotton conditions were good to poor with fair conditions being most prevalent around the district. Cotton harvest was coming along with average yields and some quality issues. Producers reported a good harvest week with no rain and moderate winds. Winter wheat was in fair to good condition. Sorghum harvest continued. Irrigated winter wheat was doing well, and producers were beginning to graze those pastures.  


Topsoil moisture throughout the district was adequate to short. Light rains and cool weather helped keep soil moisture adequate, but levels were getting low. Temperatures were average for the time of year and dropped into the mid-40s throughout the reporting period. Winter pastures planted early looked great but could use rain. Later-planted winter pasture needed rain to help with some emergence and growth. Livestock were doing well. Some producers started feeding hay, while others were utilizing pastures that still had adequate forage available. Stock tanks and farm ponds began to retract. 


Daytime temperatures were in the mid-80s with nighttime lows in the mid-40s. No precipitation was reported. Winds were high and created dust storms due to low soil moisture. Many counties were in extreme drought and have not received a measurable amount of rain in many weeks. Most cotton was plowed under, and what remained was in poor condition. Winter wheat was being planted but was struggling to emerge without any moisture. Some small plots of oats and winter wheat had emerged and will be used for grazing. Some bigger fields with irrigation pivots had good soil moisture and growing conditions for wheat. Pecans were medium quality with some trees producing above-average yields while others were bare. Ranchers were continuing fall calving, and cattle looked to be in good overall condition despite drier than average conditions. Hunters were visiting leases. Pima cotton harvest was completed, and upland fields were being harvested. Preliminary results indicated Pima yields were above average. Alfalfa producers were able to get a last clipping over the last few weeks due to warmer weather.


Very dry conditions caused wheat, oats and pastures to be poor to very poor. The district was in great need of moisture. Cotton was mostly harvested, but yields were lower due to drought. Winter wheat plantings continued and were almost complete. Many farmers and ranchers were feeding livestock with hay and protein earlier than normal. Cattle markets were steady, and the goat market was up. Stock tanks were holding steady.


Counties reported dry conditions, but rain and a cold front were in the forecast. Soil moisture levels were adequate to very short with adequate levels being most common. Winter pastures needed rain. Soil conditions continued to decline, and Walker County reported wildland fires. Established cool-season pastures were holding, but not producing additional growth. Most producers in Grimes County were feeding hay and supplements.


Warm, dry conditions continued. Pastures were declining with little to no moisture. Kinney County reported that wheat plantings were still delayed due to dry conditions. Livestock were in fair condition and receiving supplemental feed. Gillespie County reported sheep and goats were bringing record prices. 


No report.

Source: is AgriLife TODAY, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

About the Author(s)

Adam Russell

AgriLife media, Texas AgriLife

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