Livestock Liquidation: Extreme Drought Forces Ranchers to Sell Herds

As prairies bake, so do Plains cows.
Cattle—some with their ribs showing—after being sold at a Texas livestock auction. (Scott Olson / Getty)
Jul 15, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

If you’ve been thinking about becoming a vegetarian, or at least cutting down on your meat consumption, now may be the time to act.

The New York Times reports that, “As a relentless drought bakes prairie soil to dust and dries up streams across the country, ranchers struggling to feed their cattle are unloading them by the thousands, a wrenching decision likely to ripple from the Plains to supermarket shelves over the next year.”

They go on to explain, “Heat, drought and high feed prices are leading many ranchers on the Plains to winnow their herds. Ranchers say they are reducing their herds and selling their cattle months ahead of schedule to avoid the mounting losses of a drought that now stretches across a record-breaking 1,016 American counties.”

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And the news isn’t just bad for future consumers of beef.

The Times also notes that, “Because the cattle being sold now are younger and lighter than those fed all summer on prairie grass, ranchers are losing $200 to $400 for each one they are dumping early. That can mean the difference between a year’s profit and loss when multiplied out over herds numbering in the hundreds or thousands.” And this all comes full circle since, “Further down the line, the sales of cows and calves that might have otherwise produced more cows and more calves may play a role in reducing beef production, potentially driving prices higher.”

An article in today’s Tulsa Beacon offers some local insight into this nationwide problem. They note that, “More than 48 percent of Oklahoma has been designated as having a severe or worse drought rating . . . the combination of cattle prices and increasing input costs makes culling the cows the most practical business decision in terms of operational profitability for many producers.” Because of the ultra-dry conditions, ranchers also have to worry about “the threat of drought-enhanced wildfires that may potentially wipe out existing hay and forage stocks.”

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Concern about the drought and its effect on ranchers has been building for months. Back in January, Drovers Cattle Network said the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Information (NASS) had released a report that, “confirmed what many cattle market observers had expected. Record setting drought in the Southern U.S. caused beef cow herd liquidation, fewer calves on cereal grain pasture, and more cattle in feedlots.”

And NPR reported last August about a situation in the cattle town of Emory in East Texas where, “the worst drought in state history is threatening a way of life. Scorching temperatures and a lack of rain have forced many ranchers to sell off their stock. Normally before being brought to market, cattle are penned in a rancher’s best pasture to be fattened. The heavier the cow, the more the buyer pays. But the animals at a recent Emory auction look pitiful. They’re standing in 107-degree heat—that’s in the shade—with their ribs showing, stressed out.”

Arkansas cattle producer Matt Flynt spoke for many when he told local television station KTHV, “Having to be in a situation where you have to liquidate all or a portion of your cow herd is very devastating for the livestock producer because herdsmen have spent many years producing the genetic base that they have.”

It’s also not a very happy situation for all those stressed-out cattle with their ribs showing, but that’s a story for another day.

Will the problems in the beef industry change your eating habits?

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