Even in areas where pastures have sprung back from last-year’s drought, high cattle prices, cash shortages and general uncertainty will keep ranchers cautious and suggest a slow recovery of cattle numbers.

An Associated Press article this week documents the trend, noting that while demand for replacement cattle has picked up in Eastern Texas, the rebuilding process will take years even with favorable weather conditions. West Texas remains extremely dry, meaning any rebuilding in that area is at least another year in the future.

The article notes that a high-quality cow that sold last year for $1,800 now brings closer to $3,000, and prices for cow-calf pairs in East Texas auctions running $2,800 to more than $3,000, almost double last year’s prices. Replacement heifers also are attracting historically high prices. At a Missouri Show Me Select heifer sale in Fruitland, Mo. last week, the top heifer sold for $3,400, and the 157 heifers in the sale averaged $2,170, highest ever for the Show Me Select heifer sales. Thirty of the bred heifers sold for $2,500 or more.

Quoted in the AP article, Texas AgriLife Extension beef cattle specialist and rancher Jason Cleere, says ranchers are heeding climatologists' warnings that the next decade in Texas will be relatively dry, and keeping their herds small. "Ranchers in general have been a little bit more conservative on going out and rebuilding because they want to see what happens as we move into the summer," Cleere said. "Ranchers went through a lot of cash reserves last summer, and they can't do that again this year."

Earlier this year, Texas Extension state forage specialist Larry Redmon, PhD, told Drovers/CattleNetwork that ranchers in areas affected by drought need to be stocked accordingly, and in some parts of Texas and the Southern Plains that means running no cattle at all. In these areas hit hardest by drought, ranchers need to think in the long term and delay re-stocking until pastures fully recover, he says. He reminds producers that even if they are feeding hay in pastures, cattle continue to graze and cause damage to drought-stricken plants. 

In a May 8 Texas crop and weather summary, Texas A&M University, state climatologist and regents professor John Nielsen-Gammon says what’s surprising in early May is not that West Texas is so dry, but that the eastern half of the state is in relatively good condition. “The thing that was unexpected was having East Texas not be in an extreme drought right now,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “We had a second year of La Niña last winter. It just finally ended officially last month. And normally – four years out of five – you end up with a dry winter. So things have worked out as well as possibly can be expected for East Texas.”

If there’s any other good news, he says, it’s that North Atlantic Ocean sea-surface temperatures are near normal. “For Texas, that would seem to indicate that we might be getting more rainfall (this summer) than we have for the past several years.”