Texas is driving its cattle north within the midst of the drought


The cowboys rose long before sunrise, the stars still high in the West Texas sky. They buckled on spurs and leather chaps and climbed into their saddles for a final summary.

They didn’t have to do much to swish the cattle out of the dusty homes about 220 miles west of Dallas. Hundreds of hungry black Angus and Herefords, tired of searching for scarce, dry grass, came running, drawn to the hope of food. The cowboys herded the youngest, thinnest, and weakest animals into a separate stall, some with ribs and hipbones that protruded after weeks without a decent meal.

The best cattle from Swenson Land & Cattle Co. Inc. will make the trip north.

It’s a trip born of desperation, costly ranching that isn’t driven by tradition or buyers in Midwestern packing houses, but rather by a desire to survive the mounting national drought.

The managers of Swenson and the other major ranches in the state have made efforts to move cattle to green land in the north that they have leased to save their brands and continue to harness the global demand for beef.

According to the Texas Animal Health Commission, the number of breeding cows shipped from the state increased 140% in September compared to the same month last year. 145,000 cattle were exported.

By January, about 12% of Texas’ 5 million cattle since last year will have disappeared – shipped, slaughtered, or sold, according to David Anderson, an economist at Texas AgriLife Extension Service, an agricultural education agency based at Texas A&M University.

Swenson paid about $ 70,000 to ship 1,200 pieces – two-thirds of the herd – to Tryon, Neb., And Lusk, Wyo. They are all cows, the precious breeding stock they have cultivated since the stake out of Swedish immigrants in the 1860s.

Swenson’s double deck trucks will follow some of the same routes that the 19th century cattle drives followed on the Chisholm and Goodnight-Loving trails. Such massive drives would no longer be possible on the hoof, the prairies that were fenced in long ago.

“There’s no way to water cattle,” said Dennis Braden, Swenson’s general manager, from behind his gray cowboy hat and mustache. “These old cows are so weak that we would kill them.”

Braden stared at the parched land from his downtown office. The walls were covered with portraits of former ranch managers, almost all in cowboy hats, many holding cigarettes and grinning in better times. “There’s no place between here and Kansas to water cattle because we’re dry and the tanks are good and dry.”

Swenson has sold 1,000 head of cattle this year and is fighting to get the remaining 500 cows, 100 bulls and 1,300 calves.

An August poll from Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Assn. found that 84% of ranchers had reduced their herds.

Ranchers would prefer to expand their herds as the national cow herd is at 1950s levels, Braden said, while the national human population has more than doubled since then. In addition, US ranches are increasingly serving the world market. Texas, with the largest livestock farming in the country, provides 16% of American beef. According to the Department of Agriculture, US beef prices are projected to rise up to 8% this year, double the total cost of food.

“For the first time in my life we ​​had the chance to make real money,” said Braden.

When news spread among Stamford’s 3,052 residents that Braden was sending cattle north, some feared that the cattle they were used to seeing in town would disappear forever.

“You used to see horses and cattle at the book noodles. Now it’s not like that,” said Sandra Rhea, curator of Stamford’s Cowboy Museum, full of faded rodeo snaps. “They’re all going north and there’s no telling when they’ll be back.”

Texas suffered more than $ 5.2 billion in drought agricultural losses this year, including livestock. There is no relief in sight and the state climatologist says this could be the start of a 10-year drought that is part of changing weather conditions around the world.

A few months ago managers from Swenson and the larger spreads called a crisis meeting at Tongue River Ranch, about 95 miles north of here. They agreed to send Braden and the manager of the Four Sixes Ranch to explore northern pastures with above-average rainfall, and eventually leased land in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Montana.

Many say they plan to return at least some cows once Texas Greens is up, but admit that it could be years for the cows to get home.

Smaller Texas ranches that cannot lease land have sold out and slaughtered the calves and cows they cannot afford to feed.

At a recent auction in Lampasas, about 70 miles north of Austin, outfit buyers in Colorado and Wyoming lined up to bid on skinny cows, bulls, oxen and calves. Many sold for $ 1 a pound, compared to $ 1.70 last year.

A few of the cattle in the auction ring had prickly pear cheeks and legs wrapped in “white socks” of light-colored caliche mud – signs that they had been looking for food on the range when hay and fodder prices hit them Shot up.

“We can’t get hay – we’re feeding them things you wouldn’t feed a goat,” said Bob Garner, 58, a sales rancher in nearby Goldthwaite, where hay prices have doubled and the streams have run dry .

In Swenson, local businesspeople, from feeders to antibiotics sellers, stopped by to remind Braden that they can ship goods to his herd up north. But he cannot afford the additional costs that he knows will weigh on the local economy. Since March he has been forced to reduce his staff from 14 to nine.

One day he watched his cowboys pull their cattle out of the undergrowth. He hated seeing the cattle like that, the calves worst of all.

They were too small and too small to make the trip. Cowboys swept in on horses and hauled them away from their mothers. One tried to escape. The rest just huddled on spindle-shaped legs and laughed.

Soon three double-decker trucks would arrive for the animals strong enough to make the journey. The cowboys pushed them up a slide and into the trucks going into Nebraska.