The Long, Dry Fall of the Texas Rancher

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

"There's nice mama cows that are going to the packers," she says, shaking her head.

Peyrot leaves the ring and slumps into a chair on the second row. "Two months ago," he says, "they were thinning down. Now, shit, they're selling 'em all.

Even the young cows, many only recently entering their productive years, are being sold by ranchers who have no forage to sustain them and who otherwise can't afford hay prices, which are soaring on high demand, an anemic Texas harvest and $80-a-ton trucking costs to bring it in from out of state.

Brandon Thibodeaux
Brandon Thibodeaux

"Usually, these little young cows, you couldn't buy 'em because they wouldn't sell 'em," Peyrot says. "We're killing them all."

Auctions across the state, including Producers' Livestock Auction in San Angelo, one of the biggest, have seen their weekly runs tripled. Dr. David Anderson, a Texas A&M economist, is predicting a depressed calf crop and the biggest year-on-year reduction of the herd in state history — as much as 600,000 head if slaughterhouses keep working at this clip.

It could be worse: Ranchers could be getting a pittance for their beef, the way they did in the '50s when prolonged drought struck and the bottom fell out of the market. This time market forces conspired in a way no one could have predicted. A sagging economy continues to keep demand high for cheap protein like ground beef, allowing the market to absorb what would otherwise be considered a glut of breeding cows unable to yield those fine middle cuts like rib-eye. These are Hamburger Helper times, and it just so happens that Texas has a surplus of hamburger cows.

In the café behind the stands, just out of the reach of the scent of livestock and feces, a woman flips burgers, and patrons pour tall glasses of sweet tea from Igloo coolers. Will Cook, a rancher from Madill, Oklahoma, less than an hour north of here, mulls the predicament of the rancher while auction hands coated in dust, sweat and dung down their lunches quickly. "You're durned if you do, durned if you don't. We could get an inch of rain tomorrow," he says, imagining the storm that could bring his ranch, his business, back from the brink. "But we've got pecan trees with the limbs breaking off. I've seen cedar trees that are brown on top. The dust on the ground is a foot thick. Normally, it's three inches."

"Yesterday, we gathered 'em all up," he says. "We cut the herd in half and today we sold 'em."


It's a familiar refrain in Concho County: The young folk never came home. They went off to college, got married, chased the oil patch and stayed gone. The ranchers sold their land to rich out-of-towners when they got too old to run their own cows, and now the farm-to-market roads are lined with 8-foot wire fences holding the exotic game now stocked within.

But Gabe Stansberry, 35, the fourth generation of Stansberry to ranch this sparsely populated country east of San Angelo, did come home, eventually. He'd graduated from Texas A&M with an engineering degree and took a position as a sales rep for a Houston chemical company, traveling up and down the Gulf Coast. His father had urged him to learn another trade. The ranch would always be there, waiting, he said, and it was prudent to have a backup plan if drought hit or beef prices took a nosedive.

Tall, dark-headed and handsome, Gabe left Eden, Texas. But after nine years, he tired of the traffic snarls in a city where people seemed to live one on top of the other. Then his wife became pregnant, and in that moment he knew he was going home. He wanted his son to grow up alongside him and his father, Robert Stansberry, 63. He wanted his son on horseback, out on the pastures, not in some suburban cul-de-sac breathing Houston air.

He also felt a responsibility to bear some of the load as Stansberry aged. He had always wanted to work at his father's side, and he had always wanted to glean the lessons a lifetime of building up and expanding the cattle operation had taught him, both in bumper years and in the dry times he'd weathered when so many had failed.

In 2007, Gabe returned to Concho County. "This is exactly where I want to be," he says. "And exactly what I want to be doing for the rest of my life."

For the first few years, he shadowed his father, learning what to cull and when, how to prepare for the winter, how to manage money when paydays come not in bi-monthly direct deposits but maybe once a quarter. As his confidence grew, he began making operating decisions. There wasn't a moment when his father said, "OK, you make the call." But eventually Dad stepped back and Gabe stepped forward to claim his birthright.

He learned that his father stocked the ranch lightly, as though he was always prepared for drought. And when the rains stopped coming in the fall of 2010, he culled the open cows like he always did. Only this time, he didn't replace them. "I feel like he saw it coming."

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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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