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As droughts continues across the state, Texas ranchers try to keep up with rising prices

A black cow stands in a dry desert.
Mitch Borden
/
Marfa Public Radio
A black angus cow stands on the Mckenzie ranch 18 miles east of Fort Stockton.

A drought sounds like a hot dry wind. That’s what Sarah McKenzie Evans tells me as she drives through her family’s ranch 18 miles east of Fort Stockton looking for cattle.

Recent storms across West Texas have brought needed rain to the region, but when I visited her in early August it had been 11 months since it had last rained on her ranch.

Evans described the situation pretty quickly, “Bleak. Bleak is what comes to mind.” 

It’s hard for her to put this drought into context with others because, “It always seems like they are terrible when you’re in the middle of them.”

Cacti and mesquite are dying here, and the landscape looks desaturated as heat waves drift on the horizon. The small herd of 13 cows Evans was looking for is grouped around a water trough. She said the rest of the herd, about 250 cattle, were sent to a feedlot months ago.

She starts doling out hay to the hungry black angus cows. They’ve gotten used to getting hand fed since there’s little left to graze.

So far, this isn’t the worst drought the state’s ever seen. But that doesn’t make it any less painful. Ranchers like Evans are having to make calculated decisions to preserve their land and keep up with rising costs.

“How many cows do I sell? You sell your oldest cows first. How many young cows do I keep,” she explains. “These are all business decisions, but it feels more than a business decision. It feels like you are making decisions about things you have a relationship with.”

It all takes a toll, she said. Emotionally, financially and spiritually.

“I think the biggest question that’s looming is how much longer every week, every time we have one more feed bill – how much longer can we hang on and that’s that real question,” Evans said.

That’s something ranchers across the state have had to ask themselves a lot in recent years as they’ve experienced one drought after another – including one in 2011 that was the most intense drought ever recorded in Texas.

“Most ranchers would tell you it definitely seems like in the last 20 years they are probably dealing with more drought conditions or dry conditions,” said Jason Banta, a beef cattle specialist with Texas A&M.

He’s been talking to ranchers across the state about the issues they’re facing right now.

In a normal year, ranchers would be letting their cattle graze, barely buying any feed because the land would provide, Banta said. This year though, hay prices are increasing and without rain, ranchers are lining up to buy it.

According to Banta, “Producers could easily be spending $400 or more per cow just to get them fed for the next hundred days.”

To put that into perspective, that means if Texas ranchers have a herd of about 100cows, it could take $40,000 just to feed them over the next few months.

Those added expense can push people to their limit, according to Joe Williams, a cattle broker who helps ranchers across West Texas buy and sell cows.

Williams explained, “When you haven’t had any rain or you have kids in school or kids in college and the pickup truck is wearing out it starts to wear on you.”

A lot of the ranchers Williams works with are getting older. Most are well above 60 and he said some are starting to wonder if it’s worth it to keep going.

“Can I do it again?’ I’m seeing that a lot right now with my customers.” He continued, “How much juice do they have to go out there and work twice as hard with not as much.”

Sitting in her pickup truck, looking out over her family’s land, Evans knows there’s going to be some ranchers who will call it quits because of this drought. But by and large, she’s confident that most are going to do whatever they can to stay in business.

“What would we do if we didn’t have cows to talk about and go feed and look at,” she wondered, thinking about what’s next for her family’s ranch. “By nature I think we are risk takers and we’re optimistic and we have faith in the future.”

Evans said her grandfather used to say the meanest thing about a drought is that you don’t know when it will end. Even though that may be the case, Evans said her family is planning on bringing some of their cattle home soon – hoping some rain is on its way too.

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