The Meanest Drought in Texas History
Travelers on I-10 may have noticed an unusual number of 18 wheel trailer loads of hay, but probably think nothing of it. The person who the hay is to be delivered to thinks a lot about that load of hay. The 20 or so bales of hay may be the thing that keeps his cattle alive and his family fed, clothed and housed. As he ordered the load of hay he was probably praying that he could get another load, if someone had that much to sell him again and if he could even afford to buy another load.
“We are selling every blade of grass that we can bale. Dad, Dan Harris, is in the hay field every day, bailing and shipping hay. We have sent hay as far out as Brownwood,” said Bubba Harris. “It is getting to the point that we are going to have to decide how much we can afford to sell and still have enough for our needs.”
The round bales, called rolls, are four feet by five feet in diameter on average and weigh between 900 and 1,000 pounds. The roll cost is about $40 to $50 dollars and when freight is added the cost doubles at least.
“Some areas of the state are bailing anything in the grass line they can. Rice straw and Milo are being used. They provide roughage, but not much protein, but guys are taking anything they can get,” said Harris.
While there is quite a bit of water in Orange County, much of it cannot be used in hay fields. The irrigation system of canals was built for flooding rice fields.
There is no way to get enough water out of a canal to irrigate a hay field. Flooding is not the way to do it. There would need to be a pumping and spraying system installed in the fields. Orange County may face a problem growing hay this year.
“We are hanging in there this year,” Harris said. “It will be tough but we can get by. At this point it is not worth spending the money on the equipment to irrigate hay fields. It is one of the decisions you have to make carefully.
“This drought could be a once in a lifetime and we could install the system at a great cost and never use it. We just have to wait and watch how things go. It’s all part of the business.”
The changing economics has caused drastic effects on Texas agriculture. Farmers and ranchers have been effected by high interest rates and lower prices offered by the buyers. Fuel costs haven’t been helpful either.
Farmers and ranchers often have to borrow enough money to operate for the coming year. Then they worry about being able to sell the crop or herd to make enough money to pay off the loan to be in able to borrow enough for the next year. It is a cycle that never ends.
For many farmers and ranchers the life they live is the only life they have ever known. Many have had their farm or ranch in the family for generations and are just barely hanging on from year to year.
“The days of a guy being able to have a few head of cows and a bull and make any money are gone. The man that had a deal like that and a ‘real job’ could sell off a calf or two every year and make a little money. Feed, hay and fuel prices have put guys like that out of business,” said Harris. “You need to have a herd of 35 to 50 to even have a fighting chance of making money. We’ve had to rethink the way we do business. We don’t sell off our cattle in the same way we did years ago. There are fewer cattle in the U.S. now than there were in the 1950s.
“The stockyards and packing houses were all built in those years and they are set up to run a certain number of cattle through them. When they run at a lower capacity it increases their costs and that gets passed back down to us. We get less money per head and the consumer is going to pay a higher price at the other end.”
It is also harder for the rancher to find and keep pasture and the farmer tillable fields. The Harris operation is typical. They own about 500 acres and lease much more. They have cattle in several pastures scattered over a large area. The landowners are second and third generation owners in large part and many prefer to sell outright to a developer and pocket a lump sum rather than lease the pasture or field.
Those affected by the drought and wild fire situation in other parts of the state will have some difficult decisions to make if they even survive this year. The biggest will be “Can we afford to stay in business?”
If a 70 year old rancher or a 45 year old farmer with a family cannot afford to keep the family agricultural business in operation going, what will they be able to do?
In most cases all they have ever know is the ranching or farming they have been doing. If they were able to move into a city and go into the insurance or banking business, it would be so far out of their preferred way of life that it would be like moving to Mars.
Meat prices are going to be affected; it is just too early to know how much. If a rancher sells an animal that is grossly underweight, as is happening, he is going to receive less money. The packer is going to buy animals of a lesser quality. The consumer is going to buy lesser quality at a higher price. It is a bad situation.
With thousands of acres of corn affected by the drought the effect will be the same on farm products. Corn is so dry in some areas of Texas that it has rotted and dried while still on the stalk.
Crop production will be extremely low this season for Texas farmers. Texas agriculture is taking a hit from Mother Nature that it may never fully recover from.
As bad as things are in Texas, Louisiana crawfish farmers are worried about their next crop. The drought may go so deep that the crawfish may not survive. Next year’s crawfish harvest may be the lowestin history