Texas cattle rancher Bill Hyman characterizes people in his industry as “survivalists and optimists.” But the state’s worst drought in 44 years is testing both sides of that assessment.
Hyman said he cut his cow herd by more than a third over the winter, to about 80 animals, because persistent dryness has left him with little pasture for grazing. Gonzalez County, where Hyman is located, once had the most cattle of any county in Texas, he said. Now it’s closer to No. 7, he said, because drought has forced so many ranchers to sell cows and bulls.
“I just don’t have the carrying capacity and the hay to feed them,” Hyman, 61, said in a March 30 phone interview. He is executive director of the Austin-based Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas. “If it doesn’t rain the next 30 days, I’m going to have to go back into the herd and cull more.”
Hyman and other ranchers are farmers across Texas, the top U.S. beef producer, are grappling with a severe drought that threatens to further pinch the state’s $10.5 billion cattle industry and is also hurting growth of wheat and other crops. Ranchers are trimming herds as incomes suffer, contributing to a longer-term contraction of the U.S. herd that’s led to record cattle and beef prices and helped stoke food inflation.
“This is a bad drought situation shaping up and its impact will only get larger if it doesn’t rain soon,” said David Anderson, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University in College Station. The full economic effect of the drought won’t be known for some time, he said.
Texas rainfall totals lowest since 1966-67
With limited pasture availability, ranchers have had to buy more hay and other feeds over the winter, raising their costs, Anderson said in an e-mail. Drought can also hamper animals’ weight and overall condition, he said.
The drought is connected to a La Nina effect that over the past year pushed the jet stream farther north than usual, resulting in lower than normal rain in the Southern U.S. Plains, Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said.
From October through March, Texas received about 5 inches of rain on average, the smallest total since 1966-67, Nielsen-Gammon said. Normally, the state gets about 11 inches of rain during that period.
If drought continues for the next few months, “it will have a severe impact” on Texas agriculture, Nielsen-Gammon said.” There’s not a lot of subsoil moisture throughout the state. The amount of rain we get from here on out is going to be critical.”