In the stands it is cool, because co-owner Rodney Butler turned on the air conditioner four hours earlier. The temperature is in harsh contrast to the heat of a South Texas summer — and a South Texas drought — outside.
The atmosphere is hushed. Men dressed in the universal uniform of blue jeans and shirts starched as stiff as their character seem almost to whisper to each other. There are a few smiles after anecdotes but the pervading conversations center on when will it rain?
The auction is a $2 million business but it has long been a weekly excuse for those in the cattle industry to come to town. Exchanging news is as important a function as the exchange of currency for cattle.
If their faces are stoic, their eyes reveal an underlying concern. Talk to them privately and some frankly admit they’re afraid.
Out back, beneath the catwalks that seem to stretch for a city block over the pens, the cattle waiting to go on the auction block are more vocal. It is a cacophony of bawling Herefords, Brangus, Charolais, Blacks, Beefmaster and even Longhorns.
Some are thin; a few painfully so.
Both the cattle and their owners are victims of what now climatologists say is the driest Texas summer since records have been kept more than a century ago.
Any recent newspaper weather map is a study of deep orange and a darker shade with the appropriate name of burnt umber.
Yet, adjacent to the building, the fields along U.S. 59 are green, thanks to a rare and recent rain. It doesn’t look like a drought.
“It may look green outside,” says rancher Mike Power, “but wait until you get out in the pasture. It’s like a desert out there.”
In the cafe — it has no name but is popular because of proximity and reputation — six veterans of droughts past and present wait for what they argue is the best hamburger in Beeville. They are cattlemen; lunch has to be beef, even with a 40-minute wait because of the demand.
“Demand” is a salient word right now.
Cattle are hungry but the fields are dry.
“It got so dry, so quickly,” marvels rancher Buddy Jones, who remembers the 1950s drought as if it were yesterday.
But the current drought isn’t the prime cause. It’s the culmination of a series of dry years.
“Don’t forget,” advises Corpus Christi National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist John Metz, “the prevailing climate in South Texas is long periods of drought interrupted by tropical storms or hurricanes.”
The long-term effect already is evident at the Livestock Commission. A cow that normally requires 10 acres to graze now demands 15 to 20.
That “demand” word again.
“It may be green now,” says rancher Morgan O’Brien. “But when the cattle eat it off, that’s it. Nothing else is coming up.”
Farmers usually purchase crop insurance; cattlemen are not offered that luxury.
Ranchers faced with severe drought conditions have four choices: buy feed, move the cattle, cull the herd or sell out.
Digging a hole
Some cattlemen gamble that rain is just around the proverbial corner and buy hay. Thom Aman shoves his straw hat back and shakes his head. He’s a former cattle buyer who got out of the business and has seen it all.
“They’re just digging a deep hole.
“One round-bale costs between $30 and $60,” he explains. “And it will feed about 20 cows maybe two days.”
Round-bales are the rolls of harvested hay that dot the countryside.
“And that’s not the only cost,” says Power. “Not only is the price of hay high, you have to transport it — if you can find it — and it’s low on protein.”
“Not only that,” says Butler, “If you’re buying hay in July, what are you going to do in November?”
“The pastures are already depleted,” Power says. “You get into fall and winter and you’re through. I suppose you could plant oats for the fall, but who in his right mind would take such a gamble in a drought?”
Wheels on them
Another option, if a rancher has the connections, is to move his herd north, to some place away from the drought.
“It’s called ‘putting wheels on them,’” Aman explains. “But in today’s climate, that means out of state and that is expensive.”
The average cost of trucking 48 head of cattle 700 miles away, Aman figures, is between $2,500 to $3,000.
“And that’s if you know someone who will agree to it.”
Save the herd
Probably the first line of defense against a drought is culling a herd.
Butler lists the criteria for which cattle stay, and which go.
“You look at the age of the animal and how much milk she produces,” Butler says. “You check the records kept with each head. You keep the highest quality heads.”
A smaller herd means whatever food is available goes a bit further, maybe enough to keep the herd going until it rains.
Nature helps. A cow that is undernourished will wait a year to produce a calf. That alone can spell disaster for a cattleman whose livelihood is dependent on new calves every year.
But the number of ranchers trying to save their herds is evident every Friday at the commission’s auction.
Butler estimates in the last four years ranchers within a 100-mile radius of Beeville have culled their herds by 50 percent. “We used to average 1,200 head of cattle going through here a week,” Butler recalls. “In the last two years, it’s down to an average of 600.”
The formula is unforgiving.
Power is critical of the save-the-herd mentality.
“Sell the herd, take the money and put it into a short-term CD,” he advises. “And, find a good tax man, someone who knows the cattle business through and through. It’s possible to defer the tax on your breeding stock.”
Call it quits
But even culling may not be enough. When a rancher cannot feed his herd he has little choice but to sell the whole herd — knowing that whatever he gets for the cattle will not be enough to replace the entire herd when the rains return.
Many cattlemen in the Bee County area are close to reaching that deadline.
“It’s just a matter of time,” Power says. “I’ve got to do something in the next 30, 45 days.”
His forecast is mirrored by Butler.
“In three or four weeks we’re going to see more total herds sold,” he predicts.
Cattleman Frank Huser sold his herd a couple of years ago because he could tell it was “going to get dry.”
“I think it will rain sometime in September,” he predicts, “but by then the (cost of) cattle will be so high no one can touch them.”
Cattle prices traditionally go up at the start of summer, thanks to people on vacation hungry for hamburgers. That, combined with smaller herds, has equated to a 25 percent increase in the cost for a 500-pound heifer at auction.
Exacerbating the shortage is that many ranchers who have sold their herds have not replaced them. Cattle ranches now are deer leases or sold to recreational ranchers.
Here’s the beef
Yet the demand for beef is increasing internationally. The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization has documented a worldwide rising dietary preference for meats.
To help feed a world population estimated to grow to more than nine billion by the year 2050, the FAO predicts that meat production will have to double in the next 40 years.
While the term “meat” includes fish and poultry, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association reports that in the United States the 2008 per capita consumption of beef — more ground beef than steaks — was 59.9 pounds, compared with 59.2 pounds of chicken.
Most was produced by the nation’s more than 1 million cattle ranchers and farmers, according to the United States Department of Agriculture — citing 2007 figures.
The predominance of beef is no better illustrated than by The Economist magazine, which has invented the “Big Mac Index,” using the cost of a fast-food hamburger in various countries to measure the inequalities of worldwide currency exchange rates.
A fading hurrah?
All of that seems far removed from those sitting in the stands at the local auction, where the most vital statistics are an empty rain gauge and degrees Fahrenheit.
On any given Friday, Butler’s auction can last from four to five hours. By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, it’s 97 and feels hotter. Rays from the afternoon sun are made visible by the dust raised by so many hoofs moving from the pens to the auction.
Even though Butler describes the day’s auction as “very strong, very active,” he fears he is witnessing the late afternoon of his business.
“Personally, I don’t think we’ll ever have the cow numbers we had 10 years ago,” he says. “I hope I’m wrong, because I have three kids and they love it here.”
Power takes a more philosophical stance.
“They say farming is the biggest gamble in the world but we have to be a close second.”
Cattlemen head for home, their pickups raising more dust along the driveway. It doesn’t linger long, scattered by the signature of extreme drought: gusts of dry wind that have long forgotten how to comfort or to cool.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.