Rancher Pete Bonds likes what he’s seen of the rain in 2015.
He is optimistic that the above-average rainfall for North Texas could turn things around for the drought-stricken region.
“It’s a hell of a lot better than it was,” said Bonds, owner of Bonds Ranch in Saginaw.
While Bonds and other ranchers hope that four years of bone-dry conditions may soon be over, he is not ready to start “doubling down” by going on a spending spree to replenish his cattle herd.
Despite the rain, there hasn’t been enough runoff to fill his stock tanks.
“We’ve had good moisture,” Bonds said. “We finally got this ground wet, but we’ve still got a big, bad problem that we have not run any water.”
The weather will likely be a topic of conversation this weekend in Fort Worth at the annual convention of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, of which Bonds is president.
At Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, 9.11 inches of rain had fallen through Tuesday morning — 1.58 inches above normal. A year ago, only 2.13 inches had fallen.
“What will get me excited is when we see two years of normal rainfall,” Bonds said. “One wet spell isn’t going to do it. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Only God knows that.”
Cattle inventory up
As of Jan. 1, the inventory of cattle and calves totaled 11.8 million in Texas, up 6 percent from Jan. 1, 2014. Texas ranks first in the U.S. in total cattle and calves, making up 13 percent of the nation’s inventory, said Bryan Black, a spokesman for the state Agriculture Department.
Some big producers started moving their herds out of Texas in 2011, taking them to rain-fed pastures in such states as Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.
If ranchers become more optimistic and start buying cattle, it would take about three years to rebuild their herds and drive down beef prices, Bonds said. Live cattle were trading at $1.62 a pound Tuesday, compared with 95 cents in 2010 — before the drought took hold.
The Climate Prediction Center’s seasonal drought outlook shows some improvement in Dallas-Fort Worth through June, but the dry conditions are hanging on west of Fort Worth. Areas to the south and east of DFW are in far better shape, and some have seen the drought disappear.
To combat the drought’s toll, the U.S. Agriculture Department announced last week that the Livestock Forage Disaster Program is available to help offset grazing losses in 2015. Similar benefits were available from 2011 to 2014, and more than 300 operators in Tarrant and Johnson counties signed up, said Kirk Goodman, the USDA Farm Service Agency executive director for Johnson and Tarrant counties.
“This drought has been compared to the drought of the ’50s,” Goodman said. “There have been periods of abundant rains, and then it goes back to dry. We have been in this drought since before 2011.”
Not all ranchers will qualify for the federal program if they’ve been cutting back their herds, said Kerry Cornelius, director of TCU’s Ranch Management Program.
“To benefit, you’ve got to have cattle,” Cornelius said. “The first thing we teach in the time of drought is the need to liquidate if you don’t have enough forage and feed available. In this drought, you’ve had to buy feed one, two, maybe three years in a row.”
Praying for (more) rain
As far as buying more cattle, many remain hesitant, Cornelius said. That’s not only because of concerns that the drought will return but also because of the high cost of cattle.
“Mainly, it’s the amount of money it takes to get into the market today,” Cornelius said. “Everything is a multiple of three times. It takes three times the amount of money to run the same amount of cattle it did five or six years ago. There are few ranches back to full capacity.”
Jim Link, who runs a stocker operation and lives on the Tarrant-Johnson county line, said conditions vary across North Texas. Some places have water while others do not.
Link doesn’t own cattle long-term. He buys them when they weigh 300 to 400 pounds and sells them when they’re about 800 pounds.
“I’m cautiously optimistic the market is starting to come back,” Link said. “I think we’re going to have a good year for grazing anyway.”
But like Bonds, Link isn’t ready to open his wallet.
“Until I see Benbrook Lake full and all of these ponds full, I’m not going to say it’s over,” Link said. “What would be great right now would be a 2- or 3-inch downpour. But it took me two days this weekend to get half an inch.”
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698
Thinning the herds
Number of cattle in Texas on Jan. 1
2010: 13.3 million
2011: 13.3 million
2012: 11.9 million
2013: 11.3 million
2014: 11.1 million
2015: 11.8 million
Source: U.S. Agriculture Department