A relentless heat wave is piling on the difficulties faced by ranchers and farmers who've endured up to two years of drought in the Western U.S., causing some to sell off cattle at an increasingly rapid pace.
Severe drought last year forced 40% of ranchers to liquidate a portion of their herds, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. This year, that percentage could be even higher. The latest figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture had the nation's inventory of cattle and calves at 98.8 million head as of July 1, down 2% from a year earlier.
Most of Texas and Oklahoma have some measure of drought killing off pastures where cattle graze and depleting ponds and tanks that in the past were replenished with rain water, according to David Anderson, a professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M.
The conditions are forcing some to sell all or part of their herds ahead of schedule, decisions with future ramifications for ranchers, farmers, and Americans who eat beef.
"If I have to sell my cows, they are not going to be around next year to have a calf for me, so I'm really cutting into the capital of my ranch," Anderson told CBS MoneyWatch.
Selling cattle before they are fully grown means the animals weigh less, so the rancher is selling fewer pounds and receiving less revenue, while at the same time parting with a future source of cash, Anderson said. "We're selling off a lot more than just those animals. We looked at the statistics, and ranchers have been selling off more and more all year long," he added.
The impact on the nation's beef production will likely to be felt next year and in 2024, as it takes 18 to 20 months for a calf to grow to its full weight, Anderson said.
"Drought impacts have accelerated sharply in the southern Plains," Derrell Peel, a livestock marketing specialist with Oklahoma State University extension, wrote in an emailed report on Monday.
The percent of pastures and ranges in the state that rate poor to very poor has soared to 34% from 18% earlier in month, with cattle producers "destocking at a rapid rate as pasture conditions deteriorate rapidly," wrote Peel. He pointed to anecdotal reports of auctions and cow slaughter plants in the southern Plains overwhelmed by the volume of cattle sales.
Large swaths of the U.S. west are in a megadrought that scientists have called the worst in 1,200 years. In Texas, triple-digit temperatures have persisted for weeks, depleting water and burning grass needed to feed cow herds, and hastening decisions to sell.
"It's kind of like farming in the desert," Russell Boening, a farmer and rancher in Wilson County, Texas, told CBS MoneyWatch. "We would normally still be harvesting corn or grain sorghum, but that was done over a week ago," Boening added of the crops grown as a feed stock for his cattle. "It was a total failure," he added.
"We normally have some to sell, as a cash crop, but that is going to be pretty limited this year," he said, noting that his corn crop was down 65% from usual because of the heat and lack of rain.
"It will affect beef supplies"
"A good rancher is going to do the best to feed them or send them to town, because that is the right thing to do," Boening said of the decision to sell cattle at auction. "Some have culled 10%, some of have culled half," said Boening, who is also president of the Texas Farm Bureau.
"It will affect beef supplies; I don't think there's any doubt about that," said Boening, whose operations includes about 350 beef cows and 450 dairy cows.
"Last year was dry, this year is also dry, so there's cumulative effects," said Jimmy Taylor, a fourth-generation rancher in Berlin, Wyoming.
A local auction held near Cheyenne, Wyoming, last week had nearly double the usual count of cows and bulls for sale, Taylor relayed. "Some [ranchers] have run out of grass, some have run out of water, and rather than try to buy hay, which is virtually nonexistent here now," many of his neighbors are selling, Taylor said.
Taylor purchased hay throughout the winter, allowing him to continue feeding his cattle even while he lost several pastures to the drought.
Still, even that decision came with a risk, as stockpiling grass amid dry conditions elevates the chances of wildfires. Taylor lived through that danger firsthand in April, when a wildfire that started about eight miles away burned a small portion of his 12,000-acre ranch before being contained.
"We're more alert on those high fire danger days, but as far as prevention there's not much you can do," Taylor said.