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You'll probably be paying more for your rib eyes and Whoppers thanks to the great Texas drought of 2011.

"I think everybody's fear in the industry is that this weather pattern might persist like it did in the 1950s for five or six years," he said. "And this will accelerate the trend of declining cattle numbers."

The cattle industry went through a period this past summer in which the typical auctions were running 200 percent above capacity while ranchers rushed to liquidate their herds.

"Nearly all of our customers have reduced their cattle inventories by 25 percent," Mitchell says. "Some have done complete herd liquidations. It's just not economically feasible. And they're running out of stock water, drinking water for their cattle."

A lone cow waits for its turn across the auction floor at the weekly livestock auction in Longview.
Groovehouse
A lone cow waits for its turn across the auction floor at the weekly livestock auction in Longview.
Martin Lake, just down the road from Dirgin, has all but dried up. The drought forced its boat ramps to close by Easter of last year.
Groovehouse
Martin Lake, just down the road from Dirgin, has all but dried up. The drought forced its boat ramps to close by Easter of last year.

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Houston Press

2603 La Branch St.
Houston, TX 77004

Category: Community Venues

Region: Third Ward

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"There are lots of locations in Texas where rainfall was less than six inches for the whole year," Harris says. "And it rains 12 inches a year in the desert."
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There's no way to battle the drought, only to endure it.

Irrigation is basically out of the question. It's too expensive for even wealthy cattlemen to stretch irrigation lines across their thousands of acres of land. Even if they were willing to part with the money, the water just isn't there. Cities large and small are drinking the state's reservoirs dry.

The little bit of rain the state has received in the last couple of months may seem like a blessing, but handled incorrectly it can become a tremendous burden. Ranchers like Ronnie Bartley worry about "green grass fever" in less experienced ranchers.

After a period of severe drought and then fresh rains — which bring along with them green grass — these inexperienced ranchers have the tendency to immediately restock their rangelands with new cattle. What's recommended instead is a complete resting of the pasture for at least one growing season, in the same way that a badly injured athlete would sit out the season. Playing — or grazing — again too soon can have disastrous and long-reaching consequences for a pasture's fragile root system, and can in fact completely destroy it. And once the grass is dead, there's nothing much left to do with the land.

"Millions of acres of land in Texas is cow country," says Bartley. "That's all it's good for. Ain't good for nothing else: just oil wells, gas wells and cow country."

Bill Hyman, executive director of the Independent Cattlemen's Association of Texas, has concerns of his own. "When it does rain," he says, "you're gonna see a lot of these folks having to go back to their bankers or their lenders and try to borrow more money, but every day the equity in their cow herd is being reduced. They may not have the equity to get any cows back."

There are a few loans ranchers can get from the government, both locally and federally, but — as Hyman puts it — "there's limited funds there." It's not enough to assist all of the hurting ranchers, many of whom will turn to selling or leasing their land as a last resort — if their land isn't foreclosed on by the banks to whom they, like Bartley, owe a lot of money.

"A lot of ranchers now are able to lease their property to other folks for hunting, horseback riding, bed and breakfasts," Hyman says. Bartley hates this and bemoans the fact that so much good cattle ranching land has been sold off over the years to people who won't even use it anymore. For his part, he plans to dig in his heels.

"I will be one of the last ones to stay," he says. "I'll be one of the last ones to be in the cattle business because that's what I do. That's what I believe in."

A few within the agricultural industry have suggested alternative livestock, such as goats. Goats, they reason, are able to thrive off much poorer food and in longer drought conditions than cattle. They don't take up as much space per acre as cattle. And countries like neighboring Mexico will buy our goat meat, they say. But most ranchers laugh this off, just as they did when some suggested ostrich ranching — which never really panned out — in the 1990s.

Experts like Hyman agree that goat-ranching isn't the solution some may think. Morgan Weber at Revival Market chuckles that maybe the beef shortage will cause more people to try lamb. Like goat, it's a very long shot. Even Weber knows it.

"If you're not involved in it on a daily basis on an intimate level, most people don't understand how much goes into raising a cow," he says. Folks will just have to get "more used to paying more for meat based on the accurate reflection of what it costs to raise the animals," Weber continues, before admitting that he knows that confused consumers' questions are looming on the horizon.

"They're gonna ask why our tenderloins are $38 a pound," he says. "They're not gonna understand." And they're not going to like it.

"The desire and demand for beef is too strong," he says. "But there's a ceiling — it's got to let up sometime. If it's the drought that does it, that's nature keeping it in check."

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