Drought Puts Texas Ranchers, And Cattle, At Risk

Aug 26, 2011
Originally published on August 26, 2011 9:24 pm

In the cattle town of Emory in East Texas, the worst drought in state history is threatening a way of life. Scorching temperatures and a lack of rain have forced many ranchers to sell off their stock.

Normally before being brought to market, cattle are penned in a rancher's best pasture to be fattened. The heavier the cow, the more the buyer pays.

But the animals at a recent Emory auction look pitiful. They're standing in 107-degree heat — that's in the shade — with their ribs showing, stressed out. It's been like this for the past nine weeks — no rain. Although these cows were bred for the heat, they weren't bred for this. They look absolutely baked.

If this were a normal year, an August cattle auction in Emory would see maybe 100 to 200 head. There are more than 700 head today. And that's down from the more than 1,000 head sold here every Tuesday for much of this summer. The sad truth is, East Texas is starting to run out of stock to sell.

Inside the auction room, buyers in jeans and cowboy hats, here from Michigan and Wisconsin, Tennessee and Alabama, raise their fingers in front of their chests to bid. One cow, one calf, one bull after another, until late into the night. The Lone Star State is emptying itself of its cattle.

Stanley Austin is a rancher and a commission-order buyer, which means he buys livestock for farmers and feed yards. He has seen the drought's effects up close, at his family's ranch.

"We've had that place in our family for 75 years," he says, "and it's never been without water. It's been without water now since about the 15th of June."

Austin travels throughout Texas, going to seven livestock sales each week. He says the drought is going to alter the state's rural economies forever.

"It will change. It will change Texas," Austin says. "A lot of these smaller livestock auctions may have to close their doors due to the lack of cattle."

Farming and ranching in Texas has become mostly an older man's occupation. One look around the auction room confirms that. And the generation gap is going to be a drought-effect multiplier.

"My neighbor, he's an older gentlemen, he's been working on his cow herd for probably 50 years, he has 250 mama cows," Austin says. "He's out of water. He sold all of his cows last week. And he told me, 'I'm 70-something years old. I'll probably just retire.' "

At the livestock auction, cafe farmer C.W. Boen is telling how he almost lost his house the day before. He was off his property when he got a call on his cellphone.

"My neighbor was screaming into the phone that my house was on fire," he says. "I lost my religion and drove like a maniac to get to my house, and found out that some of my neighbors and friends had stopped and fought the fire and saved my house."

Some 3.4 million acres have burned in 19,000 fires in Texas over the past five months. There is charred land everywhere. It's so dry that the blistering sun, magnified through the end of a broken Coke or beer bottle, can start a fire.

And as sad as the cattle look, the horses for sale can look even more pathetic. The vast majority are not working horses, they're pets — and there's no place to slaughter a horse anymore. Last week, a mare and her foal were simply given away at this auction. Watch them parade through, one by one, and it becomes clear that something terrible and perhaps permanent is happening here.

"I believe there will always be cattle industry in the state of Texas," says Texas Farm Bureau spokesman Gene Hall, "but restocking those ranches when this ends is going to be a very expensive proposition."

Listening to the Texas Farm Bureau's reassurance that the cattle industry is not going to go away completely is a revelatory moment. In the midst of a nasty, tenacious recession, Mother Nature is kicking rural Texas right in the teeth.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, Host:

People on the East Coast are hunkering down to prepare for Hurricane Irene this weekend. But in Texas, months of drought and record temperatures have people praying for rain.

BARBARA LIGHT: Oh, precious God, oh hallelujah, we need rain. I lift the animals, the cattle, the sheep, the goats, oh hallelujah, the wild animals brought to you. The trees are wilting. The Johnson grass is not even growing, Lord. And...

GREENE: Barbara Light was one of a small group that gathered to pray last night beside the courthouse in Llano, Texas about 75 miles or so northwest of Austin.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This summer has been the hottest and driest on record in the state. The economic damage is estimated at $5.2 billion and counting.

GREENE: Lakes and rivers are drying up. NPR's John Burnett will tell us about the fate of wildlife in just a moment. First, NPR's Wade Goodwyn takes us out into cattle country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOOING)

WADE GOODWYN: This is the sound of drought.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOOING)

GOODWYN: Many of the cattle at livestock auction here in Emory in East Texas look pitiful. They're standing in 107 degree heat - that's in the shade - ribs showing and stressed out. It's been like this for the last nine weeks - no rain. Although these cows were bred for the heat, they weren't bred for this. They look and sound absolutely baked.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOOING)

GOODWYN: Unidentified Man (Auctioneer): (Unintelligible)...

GOODWYN: Inside the auction room, buyers in jeans and cowboy hats from Michigan and Wisconsin, Tennessee and Alabama raise their fingers in front of their chests to bid. One cow, one calf, one bull after another, until late into the night the Lone Star State is emptying itself of its cattle.

STANLEY AUSTIN: We've had that place there in our family for 75 years, I guess, and it's never been without water. It's been without water now since about the 15th of June.

GOODWYN: Stanley Austin is a rancher and a commission order buyer, which means he buys livestock for farmers and feed yards. He travels throughout Texas, going to seven livestock sales each week. Austin says that this drought is going to alter these rural economies forever.

AUSTIN: It will change. It will change Texas. A lot of these smaller livestock auctions, you know, they may have to close their doors due to the lack of cattle.

GOODWYN: Farming and ranching in Texas has become mostly an older man's occupation. One look around the auction room confirms that. This generation gap is going to be a drought effect multiplier.

AUSTIN: My neighbor, he's an older gentlemen, be in his early 70s, he's been working on his cow herd for probably 50 years. He has 250 mama cows. He's out of water. He sold all of his cows last week. And he told me, he said, you know, I'm 70-something years old, probably just retire.

GOODWYN: Inside the livestock auction cafe, farmer C.W. Boen is telling everyone how he almost lost his house on Monday. He was off his property when he got a call on his cell.

BOEN: And my neighbor was screaming into the phone that my house was on fire. I lost my religion and drove like a maniac to get to my house and found out that some of my neighbors and friends had stopped and fought the fire and saved my house.

GOODWYN: It is so dry, the blistering sun magnified through the end of a broken Coke bottle or a beer bottle can start a fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

GOODWYN: Unidentified Man: Mare right there (unintelligible)...

GOODWYN: Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)...

GOODWYN: Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.