Two months ago, the population of the small town of Emory, Texas, almost doubled.
The surge lasted about a day, as a cattle auction drew more than 3,500 people looking to unload cattle, a sign of how extreme drought has been affecting ranchers’ ability to feed and water their herds. A row of trailers stretched more than 3 miles on July 9, and the auction stayed open until 5 a.m. the next day.
While areas like the Texas Panhandle are used to severe drought, areas like Emory, less than 100 miles east of Dallas, are having to get used to it. Other pressures, such as inflation and supply chain issues, are also adding to a tough year for ranchers in the iconic Texas cattle industry.
Beef producers are accustomed to adapting to changing conditions, and Texans are innovating and building their long-term resilience to a changing climate. They are changing the way pastures are planted and managed, diversifying their livestock and diversifying their businesses as well.
“If you look from 2011 to today, it’s amazing how far we’ve come in terms of producing beef more efficiently,” says Jaclyn Roberts, executive director of communications for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, referring to the last big drought. of the state. .
“You can’t plan for a drought when it’s here. You plan years in advance, and I think that’s something more producers are doing,” she adds. “If we see more intense and extreme climate changes, I think we are certainly prepared for that.”
About a hundred miles southwest of Emory, Gary Price is preparing for the future, in part by looking back.
He has owned and operated Rancho 77 with his wife, Sue, for 45 years, on approximately 2,600 acres of prairie that he has slowly acquired and converted from Great Depression-era cotton fields to centuries-old landscape.
“We’re trying to duplicate what was happening a few hundred years ago with bison, wandering around and not staying very long,” says Mr Price.
That means seeding their pastures with long native grasses, as opposed to the short Bermuda grass used by many ranchers in this area. And it means rotating the pastures their herds graze on every few weeks.
Walking through one of those pastures on a late August morning, his jeans are tucked into his cowboy boots to protect them from the wet grass. A few inches of rain in late August have turned the grasses green, but signs of a recent two-month period of extreme heat and little rain are still visible. Sickly yellow grasses sway in the breeze, and rings of mud surround shallow rainwater ponds.
Month-long periods without rain (Mr. Price calls them “mini-droughts”) have become more common, he says. “The intensity [of droughts] I think it will be more pronounced” in the future.
The diverse ranch has had enough resources to get them through this drought thus far. This morning a herd of cattle chews grass. (Not long ago, they were forced to graze on mesquite beans and lily pads.) enough water for the herd. Despite nine months of drought, they have not had to buy food or carry water. He hasn’t bought fertilizer in decades.
They’ve had some luck, admits Price. They sold some old cattle late last year, so when the drought hit they had relatively few to feed, for example. But they have made some of that fortune for themselves, he says.
Native grasses cover the soil, helping it retain moisture, which in turn helps grasses withstand drought longer and recover faster after rain. The rotation of their herds over the years has also helped the grass grow deeper and deeper. Maintaining a diversity of grasses, ponds, and other food sources, such as mesquite, means that different grasses flourish in different conditions.
“This whole ranch hasn’t had the same management for 45 years,” Mr. Price says. “You just have to be very, very flexible in this business.”
“You will never be able to control how much it rains, but we can control how much benefit we get from the moisture we get,” he adds.
“These are not quick fixes”
Although one of Mr. Price’s neighbors also has native grasses, other grasses near Rancho 77 are visibly different. It’s mostly Bermuda grass, and on this morning in late August, the grass is brown and patchy, and the recent rains have washed some of the soil into nearby ditches.
There’s nothing wrong with his approach, Price says, and it’s not up to him to tell other farmers how to manage their land, but “it’s not sustainable.”
“These are not quick fixes,” he admits. Growing grasses like those at Rancho 77, with their long, deep-rooted grasses, takes time, patience, and hard work. But “over time, growing a lot of grass, that’s the cheapest food you have. That is what will allow us to stay in difficult times.”
Texas leads the country in beef production, generating more than $10 billion in gross receipts last year, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The 2011 drought cost the industry more than $3 billion in livestock losses, and this year has been similarly affected, by drought and more, according to David Anderson, a livestock economist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. .
The drought has been long and intense, beginning last fall and peaking this summer with more than 90% of the state experiencing drought conditions. Forest fires burned valuable grasses. There has been inflation and high gas prices. The extreme heat has stressed cattle and affected their ability to give birth and wean calves, which will mean long-term difficulties. The geographic breadth of the drought has kept hay prices high due to widespread demand.
These conditions are especially harsh for Texas ranchers, most of whom run smaller operations, says Dr. Anderson.
“We may not be talking about people being forced to sell their land,” he says, “but depending on how long [the drought] continues, and gravity, they may have to sell all their cows.”
Then “it becomes expensive to start over,” he adds. “Some with land may choose to do that, but some may not.”
Growers in the state have been building their resilience to drought, experts say. They have been rotating herds through different pastures and building dryland cattle tanks. They have also been breeding calves to improve longevity and resistance to drought and disease.
But again, those solutions aren’t financially feasible for everyone, according to Ms. Roberts.
“The average producers [in Texas] they are small,” he says. “It’s going to be harder for them to implement those changes at prices that make sense to them.”
What could especially help Texas farmers in the long run is diversifying land use beyond livestock. Some ranchers in South Texas have combined ranching with hunting leases. That’s something else Price has been developing over the years, including leasing his property to duck hunters and fishermen. He also gets paid for “ecosystem services” like carbon storage and stormwater cleanup.
Several of those ventures involve connecting 77 Ranch to the more than 7 million people who live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, an hour north. The Tarrant Regional Water District, which serves Fort Worth, is paying him through a USDA program to clean up stormwater that flows into his water supply, for example.
Gone are the days when bison freely roamed the Texas landscape. But ranchers have adapted before and can continue to do so now, Price believes.
“There has never been a time when all people are so focused on the land,” says Mr. Price. “I think it is the most opportune moment for the owners to make the connection with the whole society. What we are doing here impacts everyone.”
“We can have a sustainable ranch, a profitable ranch. We can benefit wildlife. We can keep the ground in place. And we can provide recreation,” she adds. “It’s a really good circle.”
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