GATESVILLE — Welcome rain last week left puddles in the ditches along Coryell County back roads, but the stingy ration of moisture was not near enough to slake the drought that has devastated cattle production for the past two years.
After a brutally hot, dry summer in 2011, Coryell County cattle producers drastically culled their herds or sold out all together.
“Last year, we estimated that nearly half the (county) cow herd was gone due to the drought,” said Lyle Zoeller, former Coryell County AgriLife Extension agent.
The county cow population dropped from about 30,000 in December 2010 to about 15,000 in December 2011, said Zoeller, who joined the Bell County AgriLife Extension Service office Sept. 4 after 15 years in Coryell County.
The estimated $33 million generated by cattle production in the county in 2011 is expected to drop to $14.7 million in 2012 as a result of the drought, Zoeller said.
Beef and hay production account for about 65 percent of agriculture in the county.
“The pastures were greatly diminished,” he said. “(Producers) lost about 50 percent of their coastal” Bermuda grass.
As the grass disappeared, the price of hay skyrocketed. When the local hay was gone, producers bought hay grown as far away as Mississippi, Michigan and California at double the price, said Santanna Bay, co-manager of Coryell Feed and Supply in Gatesville.
Round bales of hay rose from $60 to $120, driving many cow men to the sale barn to sell off a half to a third of their herds if they kept any at all.
“Most folks are just holding on,” said Kurt Morris, who grazes cattle along the Leon River near Gatesville. He has culled his herd from 100 head to 30.
“My cows have carpet burns on their noses from trying to graze this grass,” Morris said.
In past years, Morris said he would feed his cows three months of the year to supplement grazing. “Now we are feeding 10 months a year.”
Up goes the price
As the demand for feed grains has increased, so has the price. Some Coryell producers have plowed their parched hay pastures and replanted grain to take advantage of the market, Zoeller said.
The AgriLife Extension Service estimates wheat production in the county will rise from $183,000 in 2011 to nearly $3.7 million in 2012, and corn production will rise from $1.5 million to $3.1 million. Zoeller said the change is more the result of higher prices than increased acreage tillage.
Recent rain and cooler temperatures have not ended the drought, Zoeller said, “but the moisture has been good for the soil and given us a great start for winter pasture.”
The rain has not provided runoff, however, and the deep channel of the Leon River through Morris’s land is bone dry. The drought killed off several large elms and oaks along the river bank.
“Last summer was the worst,” Morris said. “So many big trees with dead leaves, it looked like fall. With 100-degree temperatures day after day, it just cooked them.”
Jack Wall, who has been raising cattle in Coryell County since he moved here from San Saba in 1972, has cut his herd back from 150 head to 34 due to the drought.
“Water is a big factor,” he said. “Creeks and tanks went dry. Some bigger operations have had to let people go, a lot of employees have had to look for other jobs.”
The drought has prompted some horse owners to rethink their riding habits.
“Horses have been in decline for the last three or four years,” said Bay. “People have come to (the feed store) trying to sell or give away their horses. People have been dropping their horses and donkeys onto Fort Hood, just letting them loose.”
Many of the animals die from lack of food and water, she said.
“Last year was a pretty nasty year all around,” Bay said.
Folks are showing they have some hope for better times ahead, she said, because they are buying shrubbery, shade trees and fruit trees to replace those lost in last year’s dry heat.
“We have had about a 25 percent increase in sales of fruit trees and shade trees,” she said.