The Texas Cattle Market Is Reeling From Costliest Drought in State's History

Feed yards are glutted with the cattle of drought-stricken Texas ranchers forced to liquidate their herds, according to the most recent report from the USDA. Some 640,000 head were placed in feedlots in July, a staggering 56-percent increase from the same time last year. On a recent trip through counties southwest of Dallas, from Comanche to Concho, the story was the same -- very little forage has survived what Texas A&M is calling the costliest drought Texas has ever seen. Few cattle can be seen in the pastures along the farm-to-market roads.

Ranchers commonly feed hay or cubes starting in the fall to get through the bare winter months. This year they've had to buy feed through the spring and summer. Hay is scarce, much of it trucked in from the north, in some cases doubling or tripling the cost. On many ranches, water is just as precious. Those who water their herds with dirt tanks are seeing them evaporate into stagnant puddles under the extreme heat, or go dry altogether.

A handful of ranchers Unfair Park spoke with are culling half of their herds, hoping to preserve a core group and ride out the drought. Some are selling their herds altogether, hoping to buy back in during better times. For the moment, livestock auctions are packed. Producers Livestock Auction in San Angelo is seeing their runs tripled. On a recent trip to the Gainesville Livestock Auction, the proprietor was disturbed by the number of bred cows he's seeing sold -- the very factory that propels a producer's operation.

Cattle are heading into the slaughterhouse in such numbers that one Texas A&M economist said he feared a 12-percent reduction in the Texas herd by the beginning of 2012. If a silver lining exists, it's in cattle prices, which have held fast and are widely expected to remain high. Problem is, when and if Texas cattle country rebounds from this historic drought, they'll pay dearly to restock the thinning ranches.

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Brantley Hargrove