By Brooke Viggiano
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Joanna O'Leary
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By Molly Dunn
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One solution is, of course, not to eat so much beef. But changing habits isn't something that comes easily to most Americans, whose love affair with U.S. beef — and inexpensive U.S. beef, more importantly — borders on a sense of entitlement.
We are a nation accustomed to paying $1 for a Big Mac. We demand meat with every meal. And although its consumption levels have dropped off since beef's peak in the 1970s — before the no-red-meat health craze set in — beef still represents one-third of the average American's total meat consumption. So many of us — 95 percent, actually — are beef-eaters. We eat more than 20 billion pounds of beef per year (that's 70 pounds of beef per year, per American).
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In a deeply ironic twist, bargain giant Walmart is actually responsible for a small portion of the increased beef costs across the entire grocery sector: Its 3,800 stores in the United States committed to stocking only higher-grade, higher-cost USDA choice beef this past year instead of its previous select beef. This switch has already begun to drive up the cost of the already greatly decreased choice-grade supply in the nation.
Ronnie Bartley, an orphan who, by his own admission, has no other marketable skills, can't imagine doing anything other than ranching. "I'm not a cowboy," he likes to tell people. "I'm a cow man."
As the soft-spoken rancher sits with a cup of black coffee at the local community coffee shop in Tatum, a Dairy Queen packed with his fellow ranchers, Bartley sounds like a man hard-pressed by life lately. "What we're dealing with now is something that's completely out of our control," he says.
"I always wanted to be a cattle rancher," he says. It was a profession he, like others around here, always admired. So he got a job at the local power plant upon graduation and worked his way up to a supervisor's position, winning himself a wife and saving enough money along the way to one day make a leap into cattle ranching. He finally did in 1995 — just as Texas was going through another tough, two-year drought. But he endured, all the while working to build a business he could one day pass on to his sons.
Within only 15 years, his line of credit at the local agriculture bank increased from $12,000 to $750,000, and as his credit grew, so did his acreage. But then the drought hit once again, and by June 2011, Bartley was forced to make some decisions.
"I began to liquidate," he says. "And I liquidated some more in July and again in September." September marked the worst of the summer, when nearly 90 percent of the state was experiencing "exceptional" drought as measured by the Drought Monitor and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And Bartley's cows were getting skinnier faster than he could sell them for a profit.
"I can put $250 into a cow as long as she raises me that 600-pound target-weight calf," he explains, sketching a balance sheet in the air. "My target on a financial statement is 700 calves at 600 pounds." With the drought, he says, he's down to only 400 calves at 520 pounds, a sorry weight for what would normally be a plump feeder calf. If he gets a good price for them at auction — maybe $1.05 a pound these days — it still won't cover the cost of the feed and hay he's put into them.
And due to the drought, the ranchers are almost completely out of any hay they would normally grow themselves on their own land. Instead, they're forced to buy hay from Mississippi and Alabama at a sharp premium: Prices careen wildly from $70 to $100 a bale — and that's when it can be found at all. It's even more expensive to put the cattle on feed, which can cost in excess of $10,000 a month.
So Bartley has come up with a different plan.
He's sunk the last money he has — $180,000 — into purchasing a few more bales of hay as well as seed to grow more hay on his own land. "I took and went to plowing, planting and praying," he says. And while he waits to see if his grass will grow, Bartley worries ceaselessly, about himself and about far larger concerns.
Although Bartley claims that the business has been a blessing to his family, at times it's seemed like more of a curse: His wife left him after the long hours took their toll on the marriage. She also took along half his money in the divorce settlement, money that he could have used to keep a few of those cows he's had to sell in the drought or to buy more hay for his hungry herds.
"If the drought continues, we're gonna have a world full of starving people," he says. "Texas is by far the largest beef producer in the nation. Who's gonna feed these people if I can't?"
When cattlemen sold their already underweight herds at the height of the drought, the market was flooded with likeminded ranchers suddenly trying to dump any excess cattle all at once. The prices that packer buyers, feedlots and slaughterhouses paid for that glut of cattle were correspondingly low. Now that the slaughterhouses are no longer running over capacity and the ranchers have no more cattle to sell, that supply has dropped sharply and the demand — both domestically and overseas — is beginning to outstrip it.
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