May 5 , 2006
South Texas herd
By Bobby Horecka
Gorge Gutierrez remembers well the stories his grandfather told of the dry times.
Being a cattle hand in South Texas, he would see the mule-drawn wagons make their slow progression across the blowing dusts of the coastal flatlands, destined for ports where farmers were shipping what little cotton they managed to pull from their fields.
More than once, Gutierrez said his granddad would tell him, the farmers sold their wagonloads long before they saw the Gulf. The cowboys needed feed, and when even prickly pear cactus began to run in short supply, burning the sparse cotton harvests for their seed was better than none.
"Cattle were dying all over the place back then," Gutierrez said. "They couldn't do anything else. They had no place to take them."
But today Gutierrez wonders if what he is witnessing in his part of Texas may not rival those almost forgotten times of the 1920s.
Like his grandfather before him, Gutierrez runs a few cattle of his own on family land near Dinero in Live Oak County, but mostly he earns his daily bread working other men's cattle on ranches all across South Texas. He spent a recent Monday on the sidelines at Live Oak Livestock Auction in Three Rivers, where his boss had taken the bulk of his herd for sale at the highest bidder.
"It's bad out there," Gutierrez said. "There's nothing for a cow to eat, and most of us can't afford to buy any more hay. All you can do is get what you can for them and move on."
Riley Rhodes, owner of the Three Rivers sale barn, knows the plight well.
He, too, has sold the bulk of his personal herd, and he's watched in recent weeks as ranchers from across the area are doing exactly the same.
Normally, Rhodes says he would be clearing about 200 cull cattle per sale at this time of year. Today, he's selling anywhere from 1,200-1,800 culls and stocking heifers per week, not counting the normal light calf market.
The increase in cattle has also seen an increase in the workload at the sale barn. Rhodes' auction is equipped to process about 200 head an hour through the sale ring, so several of his regular Monday sale days have pushed well into Tuesday.
"We're seeing several liquidations due to the drought," Rhodes said. "Most everybody has wells, so drinking water remains in ready supply. But there's simply no forage to speak of. Almost everybody has used up their hay supplies, and buying more is just astronomical right now."
Faced with the prospect of selling, most ranchers still have a bit of a silver lining, Rhodes said.
"Back in 1996, we saw a lot of ranchers out here doing the exact same thing," he said. "The only difference was the price. The market prices today are far more favorable."
Packer cows brought as little as 25 cents per pound back then, and light calves were as cheap as 40 cents per pound. Today, those older cows are easily double that price and calves, in some cases, bring triple what they did in 1996. Pairs bring $900-1,000 versus barely $400 back in 1996, and bred cattle will pull between $800-900, a sight more than the $300 cattle earned a decade ago.
Plus, unlike the days of Gutierrez's grandfather, today's cattle have a market.
Rhodes said he's attracted buyers from all over the countryNorth and East Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Nebraskaand despite widespread liquidation in his area, there are still quite a few cows left out in the country.
"Our cattlemen are facing some hard times right now, but I think they'll bounce back in a hurry," Rhodes said. "At least now, ranchers are earning enough to pay off a few notes and set some aside for when they get back to restocking their herds."
Rains are in the forecast, so ranchers are remaining hopeful. Still, Rhodes said, much of the country is so barren it will likely be next spring before the land is ready for grazing.
Texas A&M cattle market specialist David Anderson said prices should be moving downward over the few years. Although far from historical lows, he anticipates ranchers being able to buy replacement heifers for around $1 a pound by mid- to late next year.
"That's not great news, but it's far better than facing the prospect of replacing cattle now," Anderson said. "Beef production remains strong and we expect that should begin to drive prices back down over the next couple of years."
For some of the ranchers more up in years, the drought liquidations will simply spell a sooner-than-planned retirement. But for men like Gutierrez, it's just a delay.
"I would have liked to have held on to a few through this so I'd have a few calves this fall, but it's just too dry right now," Gutierrez said. "But it'll green up again, and when it does, I'll be back."