Waiting on the Rain: Drought Ravages the Texas Cattle Industry

By: John Michael Carter, Senior Staff Member

Few remnants of the “Old West” endure in modern America. However, when one thinks of cattle farming in Texas, images of cowpokes and endless ranchland come to mind. It is not difficult to believe that some bastion of the idealized west that so many authors love to write about still remains. However, the Texas cattle industry is currently under attack, and the attacker is not a rouge cow-thief or marauding Indian tribe. Rather, the worst drought in Texas history is to blame.

Texas ranchers waiting for rain in 2011 were sadly disappointed when the state received less than half of its annual rainfall.[1] On December 27, 2011, 97.83% of Texas was in a drought, and 84.81% of the land was experiencing severe drought conditions.[2] These extreme circumstances have had a massive impact on the number cattle in the state. It is estimated that this time last year an extra 600,000 cows roamed pastures in the Lone Star State, but now this portion, representing 12% of the total population, has disappeared.[3]

Many of the missing bovines have been moved north to greener pastures out of state. Farmers were forced to make the move when the lack of rain dried up the grass and pushed the hay and feed prices ever upwards.[4] Other ranchers slaughtered a great deal of the livestock after weighing their options.[5] As supply dropped and the calls for breeding cattle from overseas increased, many cows were shipped out of the U.S. to places such as China and Russia.[6] The most unfortunate victims were the cows that simply perished amidst the sweltering heat and bone-dry landscape. Cattle can ingest over eight gallons of water per day, but this year it appears that the Texan cattle are drinking less than one.[7] When the cattle do encounter water, their extreme thirst causes them to drink too much causing death by “water intoxication.”[8]Furthermore, high temperatures can cause deadly algae growth in watering tanks.[9]

The reduction in cattle population may substantially affect not only the Texas cattle industry, but also the Americans that consume over 20 billion pounds of beef each year.[10] It is estimated that the price of beef will increase by 5.5% in 2012, adding to the 9% increase that was experienced in 2011.[11]

Are there greener pastures ahead for Texan cattle farmer and the beef consuming American? The outlook is grim. According to the Houston Chronicle, “There's growing concern among some scientists that Texas' drought could linger through another dry winter and return next summer to more deeply ravage an already water-stressed state.”[12]

[1] Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Texas Drought Shrinks State Cow Herd, Los Angeles Times Blogs(Dec. 17, 2011, 9:28 PM), http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/nationnow/2011/12/texas-drought-shrinks-state-cow-herd.html.

[2] U.S. Drought Monitor: Texas, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/DM_state.htm?TX,S (last visited Jan. 22, 2012).

[3] Hennessy-Fiske, supra.

[4] Hennessy-Fiske, supra.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] John Marsh, Texas Drought Causing Cattle Deaths . . . From Too Much Water?,AccuWeather.com (Jul. 16, 2011, 9:33 AM), http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/texas-drought-causing-cattle-d/52441.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] U.S. Beef and Cattle Industry: Background Statistics and Information, U.S. Dep’t of Agriculture: Economic Research Service, http://www.ers.usda.gov/news/BSECoverage.htm (last visited Jan. 22, 2012).

[11] Hennessy-Fiske, supra.

[12] Eric Burger, This Summer’s Drought May Worsen Next Year, Houston Chronicle (Aug. 22, 2011, 8:34 PM), http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/This-summer-s-drought-may-worsen-next-year-2136436.php.