The Long, Dry Fall of the Texas Rancher

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

From there, they kept culling, trimming 50, 60, then 70 percent of the 250 head they stocked during wet years. In July, they weaned the calves they'd usually keep until October, and sold them off too. They're hoping, if worst comes to worst, to hold on to a core herd of 40 or 50 young cows, to avoid the astronomical buy-in that everyone predicts — think $2,000 replacement heifers.

But even that's looking less and less possible. In the last few weeks, some of the tanks they use to water their cattle have given out. The water well feeding the concrete reservoir, which in turn feeds the water troughs the cows drink from, has weakened. They're hauling water in a 1,600-gallon, trailer-mounted tank, filled from the garden hose and the city water tower. A cow needs about 40 gallons of water a day when the temperature edges up to the 100s. They're hauling 3,000 gallons a week out to the cows. Figure in the cost of diesel burned trucking it across the pastures, the full work day it consumes, the wear and tear on the pickups, and you begin to understand why ranchers pray the tanks hold out.

On pastures north of town, there's plenty of water, but termites are devouring what's left of the dead grass. Stansberry has seen few white-tail fawns this year, and he doesn't expect a turkey hatch, or for the quail to run. Every animal, every industry, suffers.

"There's nothing you can do to make it better," Gabe says. "You have no idea when, how or what's coming. You have to make the decision to sell or hold stock. You could sell everything, and it'll rain next week and keep on raining. Then you have to buy back in and it costs three times what you sold it for."

It's a decision that keeps his father up at night.

"You lay awake, trying to figure which is the best move you can make, and you don't know," the elder Stansberry says

If there were nothing more at stake than his own herd, his own operation, he would have sold completely out by now, he says, aiming to buy back in during better times. But it isn't his herd alone anymore. Because right behind his son sits a fifth generation of Stansberry. Question is, should he keep his grip, or does he let go?

"I'm not gonna be able to do it much longer," Stansberry says.


How does a rancher know when to quit? When he has emptied his savings account for hay bales and feed to get his cows through the winter, and the bank does the math and decides not to loan another cent? When his stock tanks go dry, and the cost of hauling water becomes too great? When his cows look like the bunch beneath a catwalk at the Wichita Livestock Sales, hides drawn tight over rib cages and pelvises, but drawn in at the flanks, giving them that bass-violin outline?

Is it when he's certain it won't rain in a week or a month or five months? And what if it does, and he sold every cow, and the cost of a replacement heifer nears $2,000? What then? How do you start over? And what of the younger men, few though they may be, who've taken jobs pumping leases to pay off the feed bill? How long before the steady paycheck calls?

What about the old-timers, like Jack Loftin? What would his wife do with him anyway, rattling anxiously around the house all day, a man who prospered and failed in barometric increments, who curses the rocky soil, the dry weather and the stubborn cattle by turns, but whose identity is irretrievably bound to each, just like his father's and his grandfather's? When does he quit? Does he even know how?

There's a long, pale scar running along Loftin's tanned forearm, which is a little crooked, like the lightning-struck post oaks on his feed road. Many years ago, the sleeve of his Army fatigue jacket caught the power take-off shaft attached to a post-hole digger, wrapping his forearm around the rig's U-joint and snapping it like a dead mesquite limb. He never straightened his arm again after that, nor could he completely bend it, but he learned to get by.

It hangs slightly away from his side as he walks down to the stock tank some 200 yards from the house. The tank has become a gray chancre coated in a fine dusting of salt. The clay bottom has dried out completely and contracted, sinking deep fissures as it splits into an infinite assortment of flaking, polygonal shapes. Loftin can get through just about anything. He can jury-rig and improvise and wield the native ingenuity impelled by necessity. But he can't make it rain. He can't make the grass grow. He can't fill this tank.

Still, out here, it's as though the needle has been lifted from the spinning record, and all the noise of the world stops, and it's just the wind hissing through the dead buffalograss. It's where he was always supposed to be, from the moment he was born until the day he dies. Raising cattle. Now, he doesn't know what's coming.

"I don't know until the time comes what I will do," he says. "I hope it don't come."

But at least for today, the sky above him says enough: Clear, blue, untroubled.

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
All
 
My Voice Nation Help
27 comments
Texas Ranches For Sale
Texas Ranches For Sale

With Texas land for sale, you can choose from any number of climates, whether the warmer and more arid regions in the south or the cooler, temperate regions in the north. Acreage for sale in Texas also encompasses varying terrain. There are plenty of wide open spaces, the prime location for raising livestock. You can find ranch land for sale near majestic mountains and flowing streams and rivers, perfect for fishing and hunting wild game.

goal software
goal software

Due to the fine sale of land property in Texas, more and more people are being driven to buy it. Therefore, there has been an all over rise in the property values, across the state in the past couple of years. Besides the great deals it offers, there is so much to explore in the Texas farm and ranch land. Choose a good website that provides you maximum information about the Texas ranch land for sale in Texas. Search for the piece of land that suits your preferences and comes under your budget. So don't wait and get a piece of land booked for you before it gets too late.

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.

 
Loading...