Hammered by the Drought, Texas Ranchers Are Running Out of Cows to Send to Slaughter

Since we started catching rain in pans and writing down measurements, Texas has never gotten so little rainfall as we have this year. As we reported in our recent story on the cattle industry, we're in uncharted territory. That's why, in August, experts were anticipating another huge wave of cows shipped to feedlots to get fat before heading to the slaughterhouse.

That's what had happened in July, when the USDA logged a 22-percent increase in the number of cows placed in feedlots over the same month in 2010. In Texas, which is bearing the brunt of the drought, 56 percent more cows were sent to get fattened up than in July 2010. The state was literally disgorging itself, as quickly as possible, of the cattle it no longer had grass to feed.

So it would make sense for the trend to continue on into August, right? Nope. The state actually saw a decrease in cows put in the feedlots -- but not because things are looking up for the cattle industry. In all likelihood it's because feedlots were already at capacity, and because drought-stressed cows required more time to chubby up before they're moved along. Not to mention that most of them have already been slaughtered.

In September, experts predicted that the trend would continue, with the cattle market grinding to a standstill. Nationwide, that didn't happen. But in Texas, as expected, things the market continued to stagnate. Cattle ranchers are barely holding on. Another La Niña has settled over the Southern Plains, heralding another dry winter and spring, according to NOAA's recently released Winter Outlook. As record feedlot placements indicate, they've already sold off a large portion of their herds just to get by.

In September, Texas trended exactly as analysts predicted: A 10-percent drop, while most other beef-producing states, including Colorado, Idaho and Nebraska, saw big increases. Texas ranchers, it seems, have already culled to the bone.

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