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Published April 16, 2013, 02:04 PM

Drought tests Texas ranchers

Beef cattle inventory continues to fall.

By: Stephanie Strom , New York Times News Service

BLOOMING GROVE, Texas — Gary Price is a rarity among cattle ranchers these days. He’s making money on his herd of 200 cows in this tiny town about an hour south of Dallas-Fort Worth.

“The market is very good, and we’ve been able to keep what we’ve needed to buy, feed and such, to a minimum,” Price says, as he strolls in a pasture on his 77 Ranch, which is planted in native grasses, stands of mesquite and a fair number of what most people would call weeds. “That’s benefited us during this drought that has pushed prices higher.”

More typical, are Don and Marilyn Smith, proprietors of the Starridge Land and Cattle Co. about 100 miles northeast in Sulphur Springs, Texas. Don Smith has hung in, paring just 10 to 15 percent of his herd over the three years that drought has severely damaged this state, but it has not been easy.

“If we don’t get a normal rain this year, we will have to make some decisions,” Don Smith says.

The persistence of the drought here has forced ranchers to use all the creative techniques they can muster to survive. For some, it has meant knowing about land management and grass. For others, it is knowing the right moment to sell calves or to gamble on something called “rain insurance.”

The cattle herd nationwide is at its lowest level in 60 years, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Texas, the nation’s largest cattle-producing state. The Texas inventory of cattle and calves was 11.3 million on Jan. 1, a decline of 5 percent from a year earlier and the lowest level since 1967, according to the Agriculture Department.

The state’s beef cattle inventory fell even more, to 4.02 million head, down 12 percent from 2012, when similarly precipitous declines occurred. The sharp contraction, brought on by two years of drought in Texas followed by a year of drought across the Great Plains that drove feed prices sky high, has left some wondering if the state will ever again have herds as large as it once boasted.

Last year, when the Texas A&M University extension service offered a series of educational programs called “Rebuilding the Beef Herd,” it had trouble attracting any interest.

“It just kind of stagnated because it never did rain,” says Ron Gill, a professor and extension service specialist. “It was all about preparing for when things got better, and they just haven’t.”