The Long, Dry Fall of the Texas Rancher

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

Hard to judge, though. Loftin wasn't born to a generation of men likely to open up and unburden themselves of their dread. But she knows he wonders what his father would think about the way his only son has managed these dry times. He can't help but compare himself to him, to the way he carried his herd through the drought of record that lasted seven long years in the '50s. At night, he's begun calling out in his sleep — "fussin'," she calls it — as though he's demanding an answer that doesn't exist. And he prays that if he learns the answer, it wasn't always there outside his bedroom window, where a dry stock tank sits in a swale amid 450 acres barren of a single grazing cow for the first time in 160 years, since before his forefathers settled this region in 1875.

He had planned on ranching until he could no longer walk out to his feed truck, or until he died out in the pasture. He says he can hold on for one more month. If the rains don't come by then, he'll take them all to the sale barn.


Texas is in the midst of the deepest yearlong drought in its history. And it's not just South Texas or West Texas. Save for a few counties, the entire state is in a condition of "exceptional" drought, the direst rating the national Drought Monitor can give. The previous record for one year came in 1956, at 70 percent of normal rainfall levels. This year that record was shattered, with 40 percent of normal rainfall.

Yet another dry winter and spring are predicted, as the Pacific Ocean-temperature phenomenon known as La Niña pushes all the moisture north of Texas for the second year in a row. Beyond that, no expert can say for certain how long this drought will persist, or how long it will take the state's $7.6 billion cattle industry to rebuild, if it ever truly can. Livestock losses have been pegged at more than $2 billion.

Cattle auctions across the state are working overtime, running well into the early morning hours, and it isn't just the "open" (not pregnant) cows moving through the auction ring. Sale barn owners are disturbed by the number of young, productive cows with years of calving ahead of them, all headed to meatpacking plants — an indication Texas cattle ranchers are cashing out. The big operators who can afford it are trucking their herds to Nebraska and the Dakotas and Wyoming, leasing pasturage where grass still grows.

Across the Texas countryside, an ecological and agricultural disaster is moving in slow motion. Hay crops across the state have been decimated. Along Highway 67, through Comanche and Brownwood and Coleman, there are barren fields, blackened pastures and long stretches where nary a cow is seen grazing. The only activity, in fact, is the 18-wheel cattle trucks roaring past, bearing loads north, anywhere but here.


On a sweltering August morning, the air brakes of a cattle truck exhale as it comes to a stop, its diesel engine idling on the edge of a 3,200-acre ranch somewhere between Archer City and Windthorst. The truck's trailer is backed up to the mouth of a loading chute, which is attached to a system of holding and working pens and a barn whose corrugated tin siding rusts and curls like moist paper.

"Boys, I'd stay out of his way this morning," Bryan Griffin says, staring out of his one good eye and referring to his 62-year-old father. "His horse fell on 'im."

He goes on to describe the cussing his father, Dennis Griffin, gave him when he roused Bryan from sleep, and the cussing he might give everyone here if they don't step lightly.

Bryan used to roughneck, working oil and gas rigs all over the state. Sometimes he says he misses it, but he can't miss hazards such as the one that prompted him to hang up his coveralls, when a chain snapped and lashed him, shattering the left side of his face and pulverizing his eye. Now he ranches with his father instead, running their own cows on their own pastures but also tending a herd of Mexican feeder cattle, thickening them up with leased grass on a ranch owned by one of Archer County's ranching dynasties.

The cows are the property of a feedlot in Hart, about 70 miles north of Lubbock. That lot pays the Griffins to fatten them up. Roughly half of U.S. cattle imports come from Mexico, at an annual average of about a million a year. But ethanol subsidies have driven up the cost of feed corn, prompting some feedlots to seek pasturage as a cost-saving tool — in other words, it's cheaper to pay these men a fee per head than to supply these small-bodied Mexican yearlings with the calories they need to render good carcasses.

In this drought, though, plans are changing. One by one, the stock tanks on the ranch have failed. There's been no meaningful rainfall in this part of Archer since September of last year. As a result, the Griffin family's fattening-up business is wasting away. These yearlings are on their way to Hart early, and the 2,600 head that once stocked this ranch are now closer to 600. Running yearlings is how Griffin makes most of his income. That might have as much to do with his disposition as the spill his horse took this morning.

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27 comments
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Texas Ranches For Sale

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Alison M. Swann
Alison M. Swann

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

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

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.

 
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