Drought builds stronger industry

Oct 7, 2011

Texas ranchers estimate nearly 6,000 miles of fence have been destroyed during this summer’s wildfires. Replacing the fence can run between $5,000 and 7,500 per mile with labor and fencing costs, according to Joe Parker Jr., Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) president.

TSCRA and Texas Cattle Feeders Association members recently visited Washington to ask lawmakers to lift the fence-age requirement for USDA’s natural disaster programs and to add to the tax deduction for the cost of replacing the fences.

“We’ve got ranchers out there saying that it really doesn’t matter if I just built it or if it’s 50 years old or 60 years old,” said Jason Skaggs, TSCRA executive director of government and public affairs. “The bottom line is, my fence is gone.”

USDA’s cost-share program is set up to help ranchers rebuild fences lost in natural disasters, but the program puts age restrictions on the fencing, paying up to 75 percent of a fence only if it is less than five years old. Fences older than 30 years are not eligible.

Texas ranchers are asking officials to drop the age requirements in light of over 19,000 fires and 3.67 million acres burned this summer, in addition to the severe drought conditions. Ranchers would also like to be able to deduct the total cost of replacing the fences in the same year, instead of spread out over five years.

Wichita Falls Rep. Mac Thornberry said the federal government should use every authority it has to help rebuild fences and to assist the devastated agricultural economy in Texas.

“I am certainly interested in looking at all other available options to help these businesses rebound from this historic disaster by trying to find funding from less urgent programs,” said Thornberry, a Republican from Clarendon, in a recent interview.

Along with asking for changes to help with fencing, Texas ranchers visiting the Capitol took the time to voice other industry concerns.

In the meetings, Parker separated the fencing help from direct aid, which he said the beef producers do not need. He instead asked the government to “back off” by repealing environmental regulations and ethanol subsidies that hamper businesses.

This year’s fires and drought have cost Texas agriculture an estimated $5.2 billion, according to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, which has set up livestock supply points where ranchers can pick up donated hay and round up lost cattle.

TSCRA members have been actively implementing a variety of their own strategies to adapt to the worst recorded drought in Texas history.

According to TSCRA’s recent Drought Impact Survey, 84 percent of respondents indicate they have reduced their herd size from their three-year average. Herds were reduced by an average of 38 percent.

But those numbers don’t reflect a 38 percent decrease in the overall size of the herd in Texas. While a lot of those cattle have changed hands, relatively few have moved out of state, Parker said.

The survey indicates that individual herds were reduced through livestock market sales, early placement into feed yards, moving cattle to unused pastures or dry lots, or sending older cows to harvest.

“If there is a silver lining to the drought, it may be that this has allowed us to see just how diverse the beef industry truly is,” Parker said. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor