The effects of the drought can be seen in a lot of places if you know where to look, especially if you're a cattle raiser and have to look at them every day. You can see the drought in a dwindling cow herd and in pastures that are dead or dormant, and even on the menu at the local fast food restaurant.
But unlike the rain, which the poem notes falls on the rich and poor alike, a drought tends to impact different cattle producers in diverse ways. Rick Machen, a livestock specialist with Texas AgriLife Extension based in Uvalde, one of the driest parts of the state, says that during this drought he is most concerned with mid-sized producers, those who have 200 to 500 head of cattle and rely on ranch operations as their primary source of income.
“The part-time cattle owners are often not truly profit-driven. If they choose to sell out it does not compromise their financial stability,” he said when asked if he thinks ranchers should continue to keep cows with what might be another dry year looming. “Many of the large producers have already taken action — they’ve sold cows, moved cows to grass either nearby or as far away as out of state. But the single-family operations relying on ranching income are in jeopardy.”
Many of these producers have already held on as long as possible at this point, he said, and if they do sell out, most of the money will go toward paying bills and providing for the family. When the rains return, they might not be able to buy their way back into the cow business without excellent financing.
“In this environment, I can’t imagine it wise to borrow money to keep cows alive,” he said. “Even with high feeder calf prices, the concomitantly high cost of production will preclude cow-calf producers from ‘getting rich quick’ when it does rain.”
Rather than cows, Machen believes it’s best to focus their attention on a sort of holy trinity of natural resources: soil, forage and water.
“Continuing to graze and tromp pastures will have a cost when it rains,” he said. “We’ll lose precious topsoils if the rains come hard and fast.
“When it gets to the point where there is no longer enough quantity or quality forage in the pasture to at least maintain weight on livestock, it’s past time to move them to small pastures, traps or pens and feed them or move them to forages elsewhere. Drought has taken such a toll on much of the country to the point it is more than ‘one good rain’ away from recovery.”
As for the high prices cattle are currently fetching, Machen points out that high prices only benefit those with cattle to sell, and they do not encourage consumers to eat more beef. He said the continued escalation of beef prices has already hit a point where consumers are cutting back on beef consumption, focusing more on pork and chicken. Sales of ground beef might remain steady when prices are high, but steak consumption goes down. He sees evidence of high beef prices when he looks at the menu of a local fast food restaurant.
“Notice what fast food restaurants are doing,” he said. “They’re changing packaging and menu pricing. McDonald’s one dollar menu now has a burger that costs $1.19. Their meal deals were historically one simple price. Now the prices posted on the menu board are for ‘medium’ meals. If you want a large drink and fries, it costs extra. I don’t think the cost of fries or soda has driven this.”
Machen has believed for some time that better times are ahead for the cattle business in Texas. He still believes that but adds, “I’m just not sure how far down the road they reside.”