Texas cattle recovery slow

Nov 9, 2012

—Drought, fire decimated state’s herd in 2011.

Brooks Hodges took over as general manager of Pitchfork Land & Cattle Co. last year in the midst of a drought and then had to deal with wildfire devouring 90,000 acres of native pasture.

At capacity, the 180,000acre ranch, which dates back to 1883, could stock nearly 4,000 cows and their calves. However, 2011 delivered only 4 inches of rain on the ranch in addition to the fire that stripped the southern half of the ranch down to bare ground, leaving it open to wind erosion.

“For about 12 months, this ground just blew,” Hodges said. “It’s going to take quite a few years to recover.”

A group of journalists participating in the Society of Environmental Journalists annual meeting in Lubbock, TX, toured the Pitchfork Ranch near Guthrie as well as the Hale Center Feedyard outside Hale Center, TX.

Drought recovery remains slow for cow/calf operators. There won’t be any official USDA numbers on whether ranchers are starting to rebuild their herds until January, but numbers earlier this year showed the Texas cow herd had 650,000 fewer head than a year earlier. Overall, the entire cattle herd in Texas declined from 13 million head to 11.9 million.

Over 3 million acres of land also burned last year across the state, forcing ranchers to cull their herds or move cattle north and also spend heavily to rebuild fences.

Rangeland experts say it’s too early to start talking about herd rebuilding in the state until the rangeland has had some chance to catch more rain and grasses begin to recharge. At the Pitchfork, one of the state’s biggest ranches, the herd remains at about 1,600 cows, less than half the normal size. The lack of grass makes it hard to convert forage into protein.

The ranch has had about 16 inches of rain this year, which includes about a 4-inch rain last month that brought some recharge to the southern pasture hit by the fire. “It’s a blessing just to have some cover now,” Hodges said.

About 120 miles to the west, the Hale Center Feedyard has about 59,000 head on feed. Kevin Kuriyama, general manager of the feed yard, said the drought has affected the cost of feed stuffs significantly. “But as far as what we feed, it really hasn’t changed much except in terms of the forage side,” he noted.

The competition for corn has caused the feed yard to look for alternatives, so Hale Center actually has started growing triticale as a winter crop. That actually began before the 2011 drought as corn prices became consistently higher.

Crops in Texas have recovered much faster than the cattle herd, according to USDA figures. Corn production is up 63 percent from last year and sorghum production has doubled. Cotton production is up 74 percent as well. Perhaps more important to cattle feeders, hay production has recovered dramatically, with production pegged at 230 percent above 2011’s Texas hay crop.

If treated right, the land is forgiving, Hodges said. What does he expect a year from now?

“I hope we’re continuing the process to rebuild and growing the cow herd,” Hodges said. “At the end of the day, I need to cash flow.” — Chris Clayton, DTN