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VIDEO: Battered By Years Of Drought, Texas Cattle Ranching Rebounds

Wetter weather is coinciding with a record spike in beef prices.

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44 Farms spreads across 3,000 acres in Cameron, Texas, an hour’s drive northwest of College Station. The ranch specializes in raising Black Angus cattle, the most common breed of beef cattle in the United States. It held its fall auction on a recent, warm Saturday afternoon.

Bob McClaren owns 44 Farms. His family has bred cattle here for more than a century. “These are all breeding cattle,” says McClaren. “All these females are really top-of-the-line females, and the bulls are all for breeding. These have been through many stages of culling, making sure that we have the best genetics offering today.”

“Genetics,” in this case covers everything from the quality of the meat to ease of delivery for calves. None of the animals at this sale are headed for the dinner table anytime soon.

Until recently, most Texas ranchers were drawing down their herds rather than building them up. Officially, the current drought began in October 2010. But that followed several years of low rainfall that withered the grasses and grains that cattle eat.

“You know, our grasses were dying just from the lack of moisture,” McClaren says. “We were feeding just corn stalks and anything else we could find to maintain the cattle through that tough time.”

McClaren had to import much of his feed from out of state. Countless other ranchers found themselves in the same situation, and not just in Texas. Drought also blasted many of the country’s other top cattle producing states, from Kansas and Nebraska to Oklahoma and Missouri.

“The drought was so severe for so long, and the feed prices were so high, that you just couldn’t do that forever,” says David Anderson, a livestock economist with Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension Service. “We do have producers who were forced to sell off all their herds. A lot of those beef cows did go to slaughter. They were sold to packing plants.”

Some ranchers wound up selling their herds to ranchers in states in the Southeast, out of the drought zone.  But the net result is the U.S. cattle inventory has fallen to its lowest level since 1951.

Meanwhile, as the economy gathers steam, consumers are spending more on steak for the grill and dining out at restaurants. Beef is now selling for close to $6.00 a pound, the most since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began keeping records.

The sell-off of herds to packing plants barely made a dent in the cost of beef. Now that excess supply is gone, and cattle prices are going through the roof. “We have had calf prices at auction pushing $3.00 a pound,” Anderson says. “That is twice as much as what we would have thought in the past being tremendously high prices.”

Roughly half of Texas remains badly parched, including the Panhandle and the North Central Plains. But the drought has abated in East and Southeast Texas, as well as in other states. Many ranchers are trying to build up their herds again.  The fall auction at 44 Farms drew hundreds of bidders from all over the nation. The ranch made roughly $3 million over a few hours, more than double the take from last year’s fall sale. It’s already gearing up for the next auction in February.

 

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media's business reporter, covering the oil...

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