A Million Beef Cows Gone? Texas’ Devastating Drought Could Leave Generational Scars
An aerial snapshot of Hale County, Texas, tells the story best. A year of minimal rain and extreme heat has produced a scene that looks more like the dead of winter instead of peak summer. Shades of brown, along with the occasional pop of green, are vivid signs of just how devastating the drought of 2022 is for area farmers to not only crops, but also their cows.
Steve Ebeling is a farmer and cattle producer near Plainview, Texas. His dryland cotton crop has already been robbed by the drought. Now, he’s making tough decisions daily about how much of his irrigated cotton he may be able to salvage, as well as what portion of his cattle herd to cull.
“What we've done is just started leasing grass and building more fence, taking some of these crops and trying to find a way to run them through a cow,” says Ebeling. “We've culled down all of our older cows, anything that we thought had any reason to cull, selling calves earlier, planting and trying to store up some hay and doing everything we can.”
Ebeling planted hay grazer in July with hopes rain this fall will help the seed sprout, but he still has some grass that was grazed three years ago and hasn’t seen much rain since.
“At the end of the day, if it doesn’t rain for another 12 months, there's probably not going to be any cows in this area,” he adds. “And then that's a harsh reality that the dairies, the feedyards, as well as the cow-calf producers are facing. It's not anything anybody wants, it's the last thing that I ever want to see, but at some point, it just becomes not feasible to have cows where it's not going to rain."
With no stockpile of forage in the region, and the grim outlook across the region,
Oklahoma State University extension livestock marketing specialist Derrell Peel is seeing the impacts across the country, as signals show this drought could rival 2011.
“There’s just no place anywhere in the country that’s got any excess hay supplies, and so, I think that’s going to limit what we can do in terms of sourcing hay. It’s going to limit what we can do in terms of relocating some cows compared to the last drought,” says Peel.
Peel points out female liquidation recently picked up pushing down culled cow prices. Year to date beef cow slaughter is up 14%, while inventory is down 2.4% and well off its high.
"From that 2018 peak, we are down about 6.3% on beef cows at this point in time,” says Peel.
If the 90-day outlook holds true, that could accelerate quickly.
"We’ll probably lose another million beef cows this year, or potentially over a little bit more than that," he says.
Peel adds that feeder supplies are down 2.7% from 2021. So, he thinks the market hole is coming sometime in the fourth quarter. And all these factors could potentially set up another cattle market similar to the 2013-2016 period.
Ebeling is watching the situation closely. The young cattle producer and his family started purchasing cattle out of New Mexico the past few years since cattle producers there were dealing with severe drought. Now, there aren’t many cattle left for New Mexico ranchers to sell.
“There's just not a stockpile of forage anywhere and I think that's predicament that has been some time coming. But I think it's something that the ramifications are going to have a long, long-term impact on our cow-calf herds,” he says.