Ranchers are rushing to sell off some of their cattle as the worst drought in nearly 25 years dries up pastures, thins hay supplies and sends feed costs sky-rocketing.
The more desperate in the Midwest are hauling water into areas where creeks have run dry and are scrambling to secure scarce and high-priced hay to keep their cattle fed and watered.
But some are giving up, or are about to.
The drought in the Midwest follows another one last year in the southern Plains. The 2011 drought was centered in the heart of cattle country in Texas and helped to shrink the U.S. herd to about 91 million head, the smallest in about 60 years, while sending beef prices to record highs.
A rush by ranchers to sell cattle, and in some cases hogs, could force consumers to dig deeper into their wallets next year as smaller herds can lead to higher beef and pork prices.
"The blasted heat... and no rain. The drought is really drying the pastures and stuff up," said Larry McCarty, who sold off more than a quarter of his 900-head cattle herd on Thursday.
He got $100 per head less than he did a month ago as the high cost of feed has spooked away potential buyers.
McCarty's cattle were part of an auction that sold more than 500 head on Thursday in Centerville, Iowa, at the Appanoose County Livestock sale barn, said owner Clarence Ballanger.
Clarence says a lot of his customers are really getting hurt by the drought. "That is a lot of people's livelihoods .. .livestock."
He says there was no sign of any large-scale liquidation of cattle yet as ranchers were trying to hold on to their animals but that could change if rain does not arrive in time to save the corn crop in the United States, the world's largest.
"What will happen here… if it does not rain…we'll probably have some big runs," said Clarence, wearing a hat to shade him from the sun as pens of year-old black cattle breathed heavily behind him in the heat.
There has been a big jump in the number of cows slaughtered in the United States. Cows are critical to growing the beef herd, fewer cows means fewer beef cattle later. In the week ending June 30, 52,700 cows were slaughtered, 3 percent more than a year ago during the peak of the Plains drought, USDA data showed.
"We're just going to get down to tiny, tiny amounts of beef available per person in the country," said Chris Hurt, agriculture economist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
HAY SHORTAGE COMPOUNDS FEED SHORTAGE
A key and growing concern for livestock producers is the supply of hay necessary to feed the millions of cattle that are produced across the U.S. Midwest.