The great drought is making ‘ranching’ beef cattle unaffordable. I put ‘ranching’ in quotes because it sounds old-timey, and conceals the fact that it’s industrial agriculture, based on low-cost oil, abundant water, cheap fertilizer, cheap grain, and the beneficence of the US Department of Agriculture. And now that water is getting scarce — and likely to remain scarce for decades — the system is falling apart.
However, some ranchers are doing pretty well, principally because the reverted to native grasses in the fields, and are raising grass-fed, not grain-fed, beeves:
Stephanie Strom, A Long Drought Tests Texas Cattle Ranchers’ Patience and Creativity
[…] the Prices have had to buy hay to feed their cows during only two weeks in the last three years. Their animals graze the “bunch grasses” that were native throughout the prairie when the buffalo roamed and that Mr. Price reintroduced on his ranch after admiring their resilience on a small patch of virgin prairie left on his property.
Those grasses, which grow to five or six feet tall, have long roots that can tap into water far underground. Though they live a long time, when such grasses die, the roots deteriorate, helping to aerate the land for better water penetration. The thicker, taller grasses also create a kind of webbing that slows runoff, keeps sediment out of lakes and tanks, and creates shade that protects lower growing grasses and helps the ground retain water.
At times, Mr. Price rotates his cattle twice a day to give the grasses a chance to recover. He has not had to cull his herd, maintaining about 200 head throughout the drought, though he has not replaced cows as quickly as he would have if rainfall patterns were more normal.
He also has developed another source of revenue: hunters from Dallas and Fort Worth who pay to shoot the quail that like to nest in the bunch grasses on his land.
The Prices have won several awards for their land management practices. “I believe this is the best way to do it, not just for profit but also for sustainability,” Mr. Price said. “But every ranch is a specific entity with its own resources — its own shade, its own water.”
Asked whether he thought the Texas cattle industry would ever recover its former glory, Mr. Price thought for a moment. “We’re all very concerned about the decline in cattle numbers and also about the losses of infrastructure, feedlots and slaughtering facilities,” he said.
Reminds me of Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia, who has been advocating grass-fed cattle for decades as the best way to convert sunlight into protein. It requires more human interaction — moving the cattle from one field to another to allow the grasses to recover — but less of all other artificial inputs.
The recovery of the grouse speaks volumes about the recovery of the grasslands. In a few years, the only ranchers left in the dry lands will be the ones that fall back on tending the grasses, and using the cattle to fertilize them, with a valuable by-product: beef.