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Why producers are selling livestock at higher volumes due to drought

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Jason Cleere made three trips to the Navasota Livestock Auction on July 9 to help his father, Randy, sell over half of the cattle on Randy’s ranch in Anderson, culling off older and younger livestock.

Cattle producers in the Brazos Valley and across Texas have increased livestock selling in recent weeks due to drought conditions. High feed and fuel prices have nixed the option of some producers using alternative feed supplies, who are now left to wean their cattle herds or liquidate them all together.

“The grass was getting really short and it was time to make some tough decisions,” said Jason Cleere, who is an associate professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Animal Science. “You look across the state, especially in east Texas and northeast Texas as well, they’re seeing some pretty good selloffs.”

True ranchers have made an initial big cut to maintain herds, according to Pete Scarmardo, founder and owner of Scarmardo Cattle Co. in Caldwell. Scarmardo said smaller producers who raise cattle as a means to supplement their income have been selling more and, at times, even sold out of their herds.

“There’s a lot of cows in this part of the country, a lot of cow herds,” Scarmardo said. “It’s hard to try to figure out how to feed a set of cows with our grains and our hay costs as high as they are today. A lot of the producers, instead of trying to maintain these herds, they’re going in there and they’re culling them and they’re culling them pretty hard.”

Producers dealt with similar drought conditions in 2011, but Cleere noted since feed prices weren’t as high it was easier to find alternative feed supplies like grains. Fuel prices weren’t as high either, which made shipping hay from out of state more affordable. Hank Hermann, co-owner and operator of Caldwell Livestock Commission, said a sack of feed is currently more than double the price it was in 2011. Hermann has yet to wean his cattle, but said he is going to cull through 10% to 20% of his herd.

“There’s a lot of people who could pencil in feeding these cattle and keeping them and waiting on rain,” Hermann said. “This go around with fuel and feed and fertilizer and the high input costs that we’re seeing, along with the drought, it’s just not a very good story. People are just not wanting to fight it or are at least thinning down.”

Lack of water has been another major effect caused from the drought conditions. Hermann said he talked with a producer on Friday who was getting ready to liquidate his entire herd of around 40 cattle. Hermann said the producer was planning to sell in two weeks, but lack of tank water was making him move that up a week.

Joe Paschal, A&M AgriLife Extension Service beef cattle specialist, said tanks have been starting to dry up and remaining water has lowered in quality due to run-off water. He added cows will drink 12-13 gallons of water per day and that amount could double under current conditions.

“The tanks start to dry up and it’s all muddy and there’s all kinds of stuff in there, so it’s not good quality water,” Paschal said. “More of it’s hot anyway when they’re drinking it. It’s 85-90 degree water. That’s why you see a lot of cows walk out to the middle of the tank. They try to get out there where it’s a little bit cooler and it’s a little bit cleaner.”

Paschal said cattle will stand in water tanks to keep cool from the heat that has reached highs of over 100 for most of July in the Brazos Valley. Paschal said the extreme temperatures have made this drought different than 2011.

“I saw some cows the other day driving in and all you can do is see their heads,” Paschal said. “They look like alligators out there in the tank.”

Greater effects from the uptick in livestock sales could be seen in the next couple of years, Scarmardo said.

“We can’t replace a cow herd like you can replace sows,” Scarmardo said. “You can raise sows really quick. You can set more eggs and produce chickens quicker, but the cattle take a lot more time, so there will be a longer and much more drastic effect to our beef prices than it will to our chicken and our pork prices.”

Cleere said there could be cost challenges when drought conditions recede, too.

“The challenge when you see these herd reductions is when things recover and the grass comes back, now the cattle are worth a lot more because there is a demand in replacement cattle,” Cleere said. “Then you have the challenge of those prices are so much higher, can you buy back what you sold?”

For now, Paschal said one way to maintain herds during these conditions is to have a “sacrifice pasture.” He said during the drought of 2011, he pinned his cows in a small pasture down in Jim Wells County for 140 days and brought them feed and water every day.

“That way, the cattle aren’t wandering around trying to eat every blade of grass,” Paschal said. “They’re not walking around. You can provide shade and you can provide feed and water. They’re going to ruin the place you’ve got them on, but you’ll save the rest of your place.”

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