When it's over, it'll rain a sunny day for cattle ranchers from Texas to California seeking a release from the dry, withered grip of persistent drought strangling the nation’s top cattle-producing states.
However, recovery from years of less than substantial rainfall has contributed to a drastic decline in cattle numbers nationwide, which will have long-lasting impacts on the industry, according to cattle ranchers and industry officials.
“By far, the last four years have been the most stressful and economically damaging,” Alameda County, California-based Rancher Tim Koopmann said. “It’s the worst I can remember.”
Koopmann, 61, who serves as the president for the California Cattlemen's Association, has lived through several harsh droughts at his 2,600-acre family ranch, which has been located in the county since 1918.
The years between 1975 and 1977, and between 1987 and 1989, were particularly hard, he recalled, adding that some people never recovered.
“We’re still surviving,” he said, referring to the collective of cattlemen living in the area, which houses an annual grassland of approximately 180,000 acres.
Koopmann, who has had to cull about half of his own herd down to 200 mother cows, said cattle ranchers are faced tough decisions due to a lack of forageable food and basic water supplies.
Rebuilding their herds in the future will be a steep road for many ranchers.
According to his estimate, approximately 140,000 mother cows had to be liquidated either as breeding stock or sent off for slaughter and processing.
An average cow requires about three percent of its body weight daily in dry matter, he said. An average mother cow needs around 12 to 18 gallons of water a day to sustain itself.
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The area where Koopmann works features annual grasslands, a rarity for most cattle ranchers who must work in the perennial grasslands of the Plains states, he said.
“From early winter, around November, we have a green feed source which peaks in June; they send thousands of stocker cattle to California for winter gains,” he said. “We’re a rare commodity.”
In November 2013, thousands of cattle were sent for their winter gains, which average around 300 pounds, but they were sent back to neighboring states in December due to a lack of water for both food supply and basic drinking sources.
“There is no water,” he said, citing a well on his property he thought would never go dry. "It’s not just grazing, we don’t have water for stocked cattle."
This has been detrimental to some California cattle ranchers who rely on getting paid by weight for stocker cattle's winter gains.
"It’ had a big impact on folks because a lot of people count on that as their sole source of income," Koopmann said.
Alternative methods of feed utilizing the by-product of corn and rice are being researched to offset the lack of grass, he said.
“We’re a pasture state,” Koopmann said.
AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist Ken Clark said numerous beef-producing states are experiencing ongoing drought conditions, which has drastically decreased the national supply.
Ongoing drought conditions have also reduced the supply of cattle in Texas, the nation’s largest state for beef production, contributing 6.3 billion pounds in 2012, 15 percent of the national total, Texas Department of Agriculture Spokesman Bryan Black said.
Some cattlemen have begun to rebuild their herd, primarily in East Texas, where drought conditions have subsided slightly.
“Since January 2011, the total number of cattle and calves in Texas has declined by 2.4 million head to 10.9 million head,” Black said.
Beef cow numbers have dropped by 20 percent over the same period to 4.35 million head.
“Right now the cattlemen have started to rebuild their herd,” Texas Farm Bureau Spokesman Gene Hall said. “It will be cramped a bit if we get another round of no rain.”
Texas needs sufficient rainfall over a long period of time so pastures can recover, Black said.
AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said the horrible thing about a drought is that it lingers and perpetually builds despite close to normal statistical averages in rainfall.
“To break a drought, you have to have above-normal rainfall for many months,” he said. “You don’t make up for lost rainfall, and it stays below normal for months or years because drought builds on itself. Drought is not always evident, it creeps up on you all of sudden.”
“In areas where grass plants have been completely killed by drought, pastures may have to be completely restored,” Black said. “Weed, prickly pear and brush control are also an issue for ranchers since they often come back quicker than grasses.”
Koopmann and Hall said cattlemen have to either sell what they can as breeding stock or slaughter some of the herd, which has also ultimately slowed the breeding process.
“It got to the genetic core,” Hall said. “It takes nine months to make a new cow.”
Rebuilding the herd while maintaining the integrity of the breed will be extremely difficult for cattlemen because livestock are specifically bred for their respective climate and regions, Koopmann added.
“It’s like starting from scratch,” Koopmann said. “We’ve all worked diligently to provide that. It’s amazing how different cattle are. Everybody adapts their cows to their specific area."
Clark said the area where Koopmann works is a much cooler, more moderate climate than parts of the Central Valley, which primarily houses dairy cows rather than beef cattle.
"The cattle there would rely more on natural grazing there," he said.
In order to rebuild herds, ranchers will have to be able to find replacement cows that are not so high in price that they cannot generate a profit, according to Black, citing increased demand for ranchers recovering from drought in East Texas.
Ranchers could also forgo the profits of sales from heifers (young females that have not yet calved) from their own herd in order to hold them back for breeding, he said.
It takes about 2.5 years for the beef from a calf to reach the meat counter.
“Our beef cattle in the U.S. is at the lowest it’s been in 63 years,” Koopmann said. “It’s the fewest mother cows we’ve had in 63 years.”
Due to the massive reduction in cattle supply nationwide, beef prices, already hovering at record highs, have spiked 1.9 percent in March, bringing the Choice beef retail value to $5.27 per pound.
Koopmann said it frightens him to see areas of California being exhausted of their water resources, including increased sinking due to groundwater extraction in the Central Valley, one of the largest agricultural hubs in the United States.
“There is a growing international market for our product,” he said, citing an impairment in overall profitability for cattle ranchers nationwide. “I’m afraid our domestic supply will be challenged. I fear we’re going to overprice ourselves.”
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