The Long, Dry Fall of the Texas Rancher

Ranchers are struggling to hold on to their herds during the driest year in Texas history.

The Long, Dry Fall of the Texas Rancher
Brandon Thibodeaux

Somewhere out in the northeast corner of Young County, about 40 miles south of Wichita Falls, an aging cattleman cups his gnarled hands around his mouth, and from it comes his call, high and sharp and short. It snaps over mesquite and chaparral with the clarity of a rifle's report.

"Whoo!"

His hands return to his sides as he scans the landscape. Post oaks stand blackly in the dim morning light, not far from where the West Fork of the Trinity sits shallow and still.

He hears nothing and calls them again. "Whoo!"

A half mile away, a cow responds, a deep bellow coming from its guts, terminating in a full-throated bawl.

"I'd just as soon have them stay where they are," 82-year-old Jack Loftin says. "They just tromp. Every blade of grass is valuable."

He turns and, in his tentative but efficient gait, rounds the front of his blue Chevy pickup, grips the steering wheel and hoists himself into the seat. There's an automatic feeder mounted to the truck bed, loaded up with alfalfa cubes he'll feed to his herd to supplement their waning supply of grass. The cubes smell of molasses, an odor that fills the truck's cab.

The truck starts off along tire ruts worn into the thinning buffalograss. He mashes the horn for a moment. And again, calling them to him. The cows bawl again, and their call becomes choral as others join, knowing well the ritual after a straight year of feeding on cubes.

He steers through the dense stands of mesquite, whose taproots sink deep underground and will survive when everything else here is dead. Their limbs rake the side panels and roof of the pickup, and their thorns screech and etch faint new lines in the paint. Fifty yards out, an immaculate rib cage belonging to one of last winter's casualties bleaches. Ahead, a calf in the truck's path faces it down, then turns and lopes on. Cows filter out of the brush, complaining and converging on the truck. Loftin stops at a spot where the dun-colored grasses are ground into the dust, and where a handful of halved old tires are crusted with rock salt for the cows.

Loftin's blue eyes dance over the backs of a few dozen head and one bull. He doesn't see the white one that's a bit of a loner, but figures she'll show up next time. She has to. There isn't enough growing out there to sustain a full-grown cow. He counts them and appraises their conditions, and shakes his head.

"They're shrunk in the back, all right," he says, eyeing hides draped thinly over rib cages and sunken into the slopes of pelvic bones. "They'll get worse, I imagine."

Across his pastures, the buffalograss — a hardy native grass that's supposed to be drought-resistant — is moisture-starved after the driest year in Texas history and a summer of triple-digit temperatures. It's common to feed during lean winter months, but it's a sign that trouble has come to cattle country when ranchers feed through the spring and summer. As their demand for feed rises, prices keep climbing, up to nearly $20 per hundred pounds. It doesn't sound like much until you do the math: 70 cows, 1,500 pounds per week, week in and week out for a year straight. Like just about every other cattleman he knows, Loftin was forced to sell off half of his herd this summer just to stay afloat, and very well may have to sell these too.

Loftin clambers back into the truck's cab and activates the feeder. It spouts cubes as he drives in a long, slow arc. The cows jostle for position on the line, tossing off strands of saliva like spidersilk. The hollow noise of their large molars crushing cubes resounds.

Loftin parks and walks across the pasture, scuffing along in a pair of lace-up brogans with leather peeling back from the toes. He ducks between strands of barbed wire hung from mesquite fence posts and, before long, comes to the only thing standing between what remains of his herd and the sale barn: a stock pond rimmed with ragweed and milkweed. It's down to five feet but holding for now.

"If we could just get some rain," he says. "You'd be surprised how quick it could change."

Later, he pulls off Loftin Road and rattles over the iron cattle guard and across the washed-out dirt road, his house framed unsteadily in the windshield. It's an oil pumper's house he bought for $1,865 in 1953. He had it trucked out to a rise on this 450-acre spread in Archer County, which has been in his family since 1933 (and happens to be adjacent to the ranch Pulitzer-Prize winning author Larry McMurtry grew up on). It had a water well productive enough for household use. He rocked over the outside with sandstone slabs he found in the pastures, and eventually built an east wing when he and his wife, Marie, had children.

Mrs. Loftin is a sweet, attentive woman with a short head of wavy hair the pearly color of lamb's wool, who makes sure guests sitting in the tiny living room's cloth recliners are in the path of the house's only wall-mounted air conditioning unit. She never did love this life the way he did. She didn't love the way he brought his worry and frustration home like a stone on his back, rather than checking it at the door the way a salaried man might. "I doubt if the younger ones feel it the same as the older ones," she says. "They may have the financial commitments, but the older ones feel like it's a journey they've been on, and don't want to get off."

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27 comments
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Marisuepotts
Marisuepotts

This is an excellent article, telling the ranchers' story with understanding and compassion. Ilive on a ranch in the rolling plains and have already faced selling our cows because a few were dying from eating weeds that are toxic, ones they usually would not eat. I always understood the drought of the 30s intellectually, but now I understand it emotionally. My heart physically hurts. The decisions my grandfathers made were tough ones and they hurt then, like I hurt now. The difference is that I got a better price. One grandfather shipped his cattle to Ft. Worth stockyards and sold his cattle for 3 cents a lb. After paying freight, he had no profit left. My maternal grandfather sold his emancipated cattle to the government and watched as the cattle were shot on his farm and dumped into a mass grave. These memories were passed down and never forgotten. This is our time: drought, wild fires, dying cattle, shortage of feed. We are spoiled and soft, but gonna get tougher. We will endure too.

Jack
Jack

One of my clients is down to three cows. He is planning on selling them as well as half of his round bales of hay. If we get some rain he plans on buying a few young bred cows and start rebuilding his head. If we don't get rain by early spring, he is going to sell the rest of his hay.

Wizard32154
Wizard32154

Sold my milking herd in August; averaged beef price for cows that should have brought 50 - 75% more. I really feel for these guys parting with their life work; @ 57, the prospects of starting something else are unnerving!!!

Sretniw01
Sretniw01

They are ranching in the desert. No rain, duh. It's the frigging desert. And as for ethanol the processed corn is usable as feed. Again to reiterate, THEY ARE IN THE DESERT.

Olympia
Olympia

I was brought up on a small cattle farm and remember as a young girl working long side my step-dad during those yrs of dry hot summers followed by the coldest of winters, fed the cattle hay, hauled water and when the hay ran out we chopped down the cactus and nopales we could find, roasted them over a fire let them cool and let the cattle feed on them. No, I'm not old by any means, but I can relate to your hardships, and my heart goes out to all. Maybe we need to do what the women in our small community did if your Catholic, they would walk the Saints in prayer all over to see the devastating drought and I don't lie when I tell you many times before we could get back home it was raining hard and long enough to give a well needed boost. Maybe we have forgotten to ask and have come to expect to much, Lord help us all.

matilda of tuscany
matilda of tuscany

357MAG yes, and those corn subsidies--they aren't there to help the farmer...they are there to boost Monsanto and Dupont (GMO seed and Chemical herbicide, fertilizer, etc.)...all while depleting our water via mass irrigation and then poisoning our waterways all the way down the Mississippi, creating dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.Buy local, organic, buy grass fed (as available)...support your local food system and stop the corporate welfare and environmental waste of corn monoculture.

RICO, that was my point regarding water conservation--mostly for grain prices (which increase the cost for the cattle rancher/finisher/consumer)...I do realize that the majority of pasture and hay fields absolutely need rain, but the grain feeding and water sustainability go hand in hand too.

357MAG
357MAG

This forced use of corn to make ethanol gas is forcing corn prices and in turn all feed prices to increase rapidly. Each time we get a new shipment of feed in the prices rise considerably. Most farmers/ranchers in the area are just trying to get by. Many are wondering if they should try to plant and hope it rains more than enough to just get the seed to sprout. That is if they can even work the fields. Fertilizer prices are sky high again with no real explanation as to why. Could not be supply and demand, not in this area, maybe up north where they are growing all the corn for our government's ethanol plants. Hay is being shipped in from as far as North Dakota, where their fields are lush and green and the grasses are over belly high to their cattle. Pray for rain is posted nearly everywhere, even on the bank marquee.

357MAG
357MAG

I work at a farm co-op, we sell ethanol free gas. Most non-farmer/non-ranchers come in and question why we are not supporting the corn farmers. They do not realize that ethanol gas is costing our farmers and ranchers more than anyone will ever realize. Our government is forcing all gas stations and suppliers to carry ethanol gas...it is just a matter of time before we are no longer able to find ethanol-free gas. Most all of our nation's corn crop is going to produce ethanol gas. Do you know what happens to the ( how do I say this) the corn after they make the ethanol additive? You would think they could use it for cattle feed or some sort of fertilizer...no it is not good for anything, in fact I believe it is considered poisonous and has to be discarded appropriately.This government mandate ethanol is not good for gas mileage and burns hotter in your engines. This in turn wears our our vehicles quicker, which in turn causes us to purchase new vehicles...all this is great for the government owned auto makers.

Rico
Rico

Sorry, but any rancher will tell you that it is cost prohibitive to pump water from any source to irrigate a filed or pasture to grow grass for cattle. The margin on a cow/calf operation is not great to begin with. The expense of irrigating even a few small pastures in immediate proximity to a significant water source is insanely high. And state reservoir water is not there for the taking by any nearby rancher. Similarly, the cost of drilling a deep well to tap into a reliable source of water is a back-breaker. Even if it were cost efficient and legal, irrigating pastures around area lakes would not make any difference to the current situation. Without minimal rain, these folks have fight on their hands. .

As someone who is very familiar with livestock and wildlife management and who has had the opportunity to visit many, many times with some of the legendary Texas ranchers before their demise, and as someone knowledgeable on the topic of Texas water rights, I can tell you that the water in Texas lakes, or deep aquifers for that matter, is simply not the water that cattlemen and women are worried about when they can't grow grass or water their herds. They watch the skies, watch the animals for sign that rain is coming, check rain gauges for any measurable trace and yes, they pray for rain.

I don't disagree that we have big sustainability issues to deal with and that urban consumption is a major overall problem, but the causal connection you make just isn't there. I do agree with your initial point, though, that Brantley Hargrove has given us a very poignant and well-written article.

matilda of tuscany
matilda of tuscany

I contend it does have an impact...read beginning of page 5, learn about ethanol crop subsidies for water sucking crops, our reservoirs and underground water aquifers are being depleted (and probably contaminated) by residential and industrial use (gas fracking, etc.). All of this leads to higher prices for ranchers, farmers, and consumers. it leads us to have a big dilemma with our food system and water sustainability. Some (not too many) pastures or hay fields could be irrigated, if our reservoirs weren't at critical stages--and that, at least, would help.

JT
JT

driest year in Texas history

Rico
Rico

You think the dilemma facing Mr. Loftin and the thousands like him across Texas is related to how much water people in Dallas use when watering their lawns? These cattlemen and women are suffering through a major drought. Just like the major drought they suffered through in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which was just like the one they suffered through in the 1930s, and the drought before that, and the one before that. As Mr. Loftin admits, the lack of rain - rain that allows the coastal bermuda and other native and non-native feed grasses to grow - is the root of the problem.

MJM
MJM

Matilda got it right. Every time you see a house with a stupidly green lush yard, think of these guys dying out there, forced to sell their land to some big bankers. The word "myopic" comes to mind. People see their neighbors doing it and they can't resist. It also means higher beef prices, more factory farming (the corporations are the only ones that can survive this), and worse overall health.

Great story. Wish I could force every water-abusing adult in Plano, Southlake, etc. to read this.

matilda of tuscany
matilda of tuscany

Elmer Kelton's book is exactly what is happening now--should be required reading for all Texans. Yes, perhaps city and country folks both need to stop believing and voting for the climate change deniers...and start conserving in earnest.

Tony
Tony

The life of the grass cattle rancher has been tough for over two hundred years. I guess when it's good, it keeps them going. I'm always reminded of Elmer Kelton's "The Time It Never Rained". It's a good read if you like perspective on just how demoralizing that life can be.

matilda of tuscany
matilda of tuscany

Absolutely soul crushing. City slickers, keep those lawns green now. Keep pumping those sprinklers. Wonder why your food costs so much, and keep believing that climate change is a hoax.

Mountain Creek
Mountain Creek

Yes, just like the longer drought of the 50's and the dust bowl of the great depression-era 30's was related to all those people in metropolitan areas watering their lawns.

No way it could be just the cyclical nature of things.

It absolutely has to be the result of something that someone is doing somewhere - and as a result, those someone's (probably evil rich people) should be punished.

Seriously, the cattlemen in west and south Texas would laugh at the idea that their plight is somehow the result of overwatered Southlake lawns.

Alison M. Swann
Alison M. Swann

Kelton's book is the first thing that came to mind for me also.

Mountain Creek
Mountain Creek

Spoken like a true city slicker. I'm not a climate change denier. I'm just asking for a dose of reality to be swallowed along with the pill of assumptions. Understand that correlation does not equal causation.

NatWu
NatWu

City slickers? It's not really the city slickers who vote Republican and deny climate change. Except for Ft. Worth, that is.

Brantley Hargrove
Brantley Hargrove

MC -- True, it's tough to make the case that this drought -- not the temperatures, however -- is caused by anthropogenic climate change. But the dust bowl is a bad example to back your point with. The mountains of topsoil flying around in the 30s were absolutely caused by the wholesale plowing-under of the Southern Plains during the wheat boom. Ever felt the wind on the Llano Estacado? No prairie grass to anchor that soil = dust bowl.

Mountain Creek
Mountain Creek

Not denying a link of human activity to the dust bowl, either. However, the drought conditions during the dust bowl were beyond human impact (especially all those pesky lawn-waterers). Other conditions of the dust bowl were man-made (land'scraping', etc.).

lorlee
lorlee

Read "The Worst Hard Times" if you want to understand how it happened -- and how it can happen again.

 
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