In the heart of U.S. cattle country, a four- year drought got so bad that Jim Sartwelle’s east Texas ranches looked more like dirt parking lots than pastures. At one point, to keep the animals fed, he bought two truckloads of grass cut from the side of a road in Louisiana, about 200 miles away.
All that changed when the rains starting arriving in March and kept falling. It has been the state’s wettest May on record, and now there is more green grass than the cattle can eat. With the drought over, ranchers like Sartwelle are preparing to expand U.S. herds that had shrunk to the smallest since 1952 and sent beef prices surging to records.
The grass is “knee- to belly-high everywhere you look,” said Sartwelle, 44. The fourth-generation rancher manages a 100- cow breeding herd with his father in Robinson and Sealy, that is down 20 percent since 2010. Now, with cattle prices high, Sartwelle wants to get his herd to where it was before the drought. “It’s time to start building numbers back,” he said.
While adding cattle can take more than two years, the revival of Texas pastureland is a key step in boosting supplies. The government last month estimated that U.S. beef output will halt its four-year slide in 2015 and increase next year. Companies including Tyson Foods Inc. and Texas Roadhouse Inc. say a rebound in supply should eventually bring meat costs down.
The amount of pasture land in good or excellent condition in Texas, the biggest cattle-raising state, has doubled since the start of March to 71 percent as of May 24, the best weekly ratings since 2007 and more than the national average of 60 percent, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. And more rain is forecast over the next three months.
“We have a tremendous amount of grass growing,” said Bill Hyman, executive director of the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas in Lockhart. “Our stock tanks are full for the first time in quite a few years. The rains in the spring have heightened a lot of people’s expectations for the future.”
That’s because the drought hit Texas hard. The number of cattle in the state fell by a fifth in the decade through 2014, while the U.S. inventory at the start of 2014 was the smallest since 1952, USDA data show. Tighter supplies pushed cattle futures in November to an all-time high of $1.7275 a pound on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
Conditions began improving this year, even before the rains. On Jan. 1, the national cattle supply was up 1.4 percent from the five-decade low a year earlier, government data show. In Texas, the herd of beef cows used for breeding was up 6.9 percent from a year earlier at 4.2 million head.
“We’re going to keep expanding and recovering a lot of the cattle we lost in the drought,” said David Anderson, a livestock economist at Texas A&M University in College Station. “This provides the fuel, the grass, for the cows that we already held back and some future growth.”
The USDA forecasts a 0.1 percent increase in domestic beef output this year to 24.339 billion pounds (11 million metric tons), with a further 0.9 percent gain next year.
While prices remain higher than they were a year ago, they have been dropping. Cattle futures are down 7 percent this year, and wholesale beef has slipped 4.3 percent since touching a record $2.6559 a pound on May 19, USDA data show.