By Jacqueline Brown
Killeen Daily Herald
COPPERAS COVE There are about 33,000 cows in Coryell County.
Extension agent Lyle Zoeller said if 90 percent of them calved, cattle production would generate $15.6 million for county ranchers if they can make it through the winter.
Generally, we have a lot of cattle grazing on oats and wheat, Zoeller said. That counts for a very good bit of our winter nutrition.
However, he said this years winter pastures are non-existent because there hasnt been enough rain to produce the crops.
The Palmer Drought Severity Index shows that Coryell County is experiencing a moderate drought, but without rain in the near future the level could be elevated to severe.
People try not to start feeding hay until about the first of December, Zoeller said, explaining that some people were forced to start feeding as early as October. Its a pretty grim picture for beef cattle nutrition.
The situation is similarly devastating in Bell County.
Extension agent Richard Aaron Jr. said many ranchers in Bell County are stocker-cattle operators, which means producers buy calves that have been weaned from their mothers and graze them on small-grain pastures.
Without the high-quality porridge from oat and wheat crops, he said the number of cattle in Bell County has suffered dramatically.
In addition to the barren pastures, he said the price of both diesel fuel and fertilizer has doubled within the past two to three years. That means operators spent twice as much trying to grow crops that never matured and are spending twice as much transporting the hay they need to sustain their stock. Aaron said it costs ranchers $100 more per head to feed their herds exhausting chances for profit in stocker-cattle operations.
This is a precarious time, he said, explaining that operators are looking for the best way to minimize input and maximize production.
He said some ranchers might be forced to liquidate and buy back when conditions improve.
Fifteen to 20 percent are actually in the process of coming to grips with selling off their cows, Aaron said.
He said if everyone rushes to sell their stock at once, the price of cattle will drop. Consequently, when circumstances improve and operators attempt to restock, he said supply and demand will reverse and the price will shoot back up.
However, Aaron remains optimistic.
Times will get better and rains will come, he said.
Coryell County rancher W.B. Maples hopes the rains come soon.
He said the area badly needs an inch of rain or more.
If we dont get a rain in three weeks, I dont think these oats can last, he said. Weve lived on this place for 18 years, and this is the first year we havent had winter grazing out of our oat crop.
Maples said he has been shipping in alfalfa hay to supplement protein for his herd.
You cannot starve a profit into livestock, he said. If you dont feed them and you dont take care of them, theyre not going to make you any money.
Maples said ranchers have to be prepared for Mother Nature and do the things that are necessary to keep the livestock in good shape.
I think well make it, he said. If we couldnt hang on, wed lose everything weve built up to this point.
Maples said that point may already be here for some people.
Four months without rain in this country is devastating, he said.
It could be right now, it could be a month from now.
Coryell County Commissio-ner and rancher Jack Wall said the drought is also beginning to be an issue in tanks, creeks and springs.
He said some cattle are already being sold and if the area doesnt get some rain by this spring, there will be a lot more.
Most farmers and ranchers expect it to happen, he said. Hopefully, youre prepared.
Bell County veterinarian and rancher Woody Ray was prepared, but the absence of rainfall combined with escalating fuel prices is still impacting his operation.
Thanks to my father we have senior water rights to the Lampasas River, he said, adding that his family has the oldest irrigation permit on the river.
Ray said he is selling his excess hay to places as far south as San Antonio and as far west as Lometa and Llano.
Those people have no pasture, he said.
Theyre having to feed their animals everything they get.
Ray has 250 Brangus cattle right now, but without irrigation to maximize his production he said he probably wouldnt have more than 50 cows.
Ray said irrigation fuel has gone up 300 percent making it more and more difficult for him to irrigate his fields.
Its a quite devastating situation, he said.
Somethings got to happen real soon.
However, agent Zoeller said the situation isnt completely negative.
The bright side of the story is calf prices are very good, he said.
In addition, earlier this month the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that the United States and Japan had reached an agreement that will reopen Japanese markets to U.S. beef.
Spokesperson Susan Krause said before the embargo began in 2003, Japan was the largest single market for U.S. beef.
In a news release, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns said he hopes Japans decision will be an incentive to other nations that still maintain embargoes.
Williamson County rancher Brian Burson said the price of cattle has gone up from 96 cents per pound to more than $1 per pound in some cases since the embargo was lifted, and he expects the price to continue to rise.
As we sit today, this (situation) is typical, Aaron said. Hang around long enough and things will change.
Contact Jacqueline Brown at email@example.com