SAN ANGELO — Last week, Thomas Hinds delivered more than a dozen calves to an auction house in San Angelo, some 350 miles northeast of his ranch in Sanderson. Less than an inch of rain has fallen on his land since last September, and the drought has made it hard to find find hay, said Hinds, who estimated that the price of feed has also risen by a third since last year.
"A lot of people our age are just quitting because feed is so high and labor is so hard to get," said Hinds, who was a boy during the prolonged drought of the 1950s that is still considered the worst in Texas history.
The current drought is now considered the third-worst ever experienced in Texas, and it has taken a toll on cattle ranchers in the country's largest beef-producing state, with over five million head. Across West Texas, those cows that are still grazing in pastures have only dry, brown grasses to consume, and sometimes water holes are drying up too. Charley Christensen, general manager of the Producers Livestock Auction in San Angelo, said that the cattle pens at his auction house are more than twice as full as they were this time last year.
"It's really everybody across West Texas is selling cattle," Christensen said, standing on a walkway above the pens, as cows mooed and bellowed below. Sheep and goats are also being sold in large numbers, said Christensen, who noted that a number of ranchers got out of the cattle business in the 1990s after a drought, and did not get back in.
From November to May, the drought's economic impact to Texas livestock producers — including higher feed costs — totaled $1.2 billion, according to a recent report from the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. That accounted for the majority of the $1.5 billion impact to agriculture. David P. Anderson, an extension service economist based in College Station who is one of the report's authors, said that an updated estimate should be available by the end of next month, and the proportion of crop losses, such as corn and cotton, should rise significantly.
Anderson said that overall losses from this drought were likely to surpass those from another Texas drought in 2006, which reached $4.2 billion. "This drought is worse," he said. "This drought covers a larger percent of the state."
Cattle prices have held fairly well, according to Christensen of the auction house. That's somewhat surprising, but the reason is that plenty of out-of-state buyers are coming in — many of them from parts of the country that have gotten far more rain than Texas. "Lots of cattle going to South Dakota," says Christensen, who says he's also gotten interest from Montana, Utah, Kansas, Oklahoma (those parts of the state not stricken by drought), Missouri and Arkansas.
The Texas state government is working to aid farmers via a "hay hotline," operated by the Department of Agriculture, which helps ranchers to find hay locally. However, Hinds and his wife said hay often simply cannot be found — they have scoured local papers, and seen none advertised. Hinds is angry about federal policies that support corn-based ethanol, which he says have pushed up prices for cattle feed, which ranchers must buy when hay and forage are unavailable.
Hinds does have rangeland insurance, a relatively new program that's subsidized by the federal Department of Agriculture (which has also declared most of the state a disaster due to drought and so that it can provide low-interest loans to farmers). But he remains worried about the threat of wildfires, which have already burned plenty of rangeland and sent some cattle to the markets already. Some ranches have long grass to attract grazing deer, and he says it's ready to burn: "Somebody drops a match and starts all these fires," he says.
Still, Hinds has kept some cattle back home, one of many Texas ranchers who is trying to hold onto the best of their herds even through the lack of rainfall.
"It doesn't really make sense to stay" in the cattle business, Hinds says. "But we know if we don't stay, we'll never get back in."