The year 2011 — the driest year on record in Texas — was the stuff of nightmares for area ranchers. Five years later, those who raise beef cattle are just beginning to recover.
Kelley Sullivan, who co-owns Santa Rosa Ranch in Grimes and Houston counties with her father, said the 2011 drought made her a better producer. But at the time, the experience brought back daunting stories her father told her about living through the seven-year drought in the 1950s.
“He said as a boy he remembers it just never rained,” Sullivan said. “He said when it first rained, he remembered asking, ‘What is that?'”
For many Texas ranchers, the 2011 drought was similar to what the state experienced in the 1950s — but much worse.
“What we had at that time was not only the weeks upon weeks without any moisture, but the unbelievable heat,” Sullivan said. “It just completely parched the earth.”
Sullivan was able to stave off losing cattle, but ranchers across Texas tightened belts and cut about 20 percent of beef cow herds. Statewide, herds shrunk by more than one million beef cattle, and by 2014, the number in Texas dropped to 3.9 million, the lowest since 1958, according to National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).
“Cattle were sold and moved to other states, and our state became depleted of cattle, because we just didn’t have the grass and water to do our business,” said Richard Thorpe, president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
Brazos Valley was no exception. Beef cow herds in Brazos, Leon, Madison, Milam and Washington counties dropped to as low as 167,000 in 2014, according to NASS. Since then, herds across Texas and in Brazos Valley have expanded slowly. In January, the beef cattle herds in local counties reached 183,000 while across Texas the number reached nearly 4.3 million.
Experts such as Dave Anderson, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agricultural economist, expect these numbers to continue to grow, but getting back to the amount of beef cows produced a decade ago will take time. Anderson, who is also a professor at Texas A&M, attributes the slow growth to urban development, rising costs and the lasting effects of drought.
“Since the drought was so severe, it really colors everything after,” Anderson said. “A drought that severe takes multiple years for plant life to recover.”
Anderson said farmers and ranchers can use creative irrigation methods and drought-tolerant crop varieties to lessen the effects of dry weather, but ultimately, expanding herd sizes depends on rainfall and grass growth. As such, Anderson said the lifting of burn bans across Brazos Valley recently is a good sign for an industry at the mercy of the weather.
But as ranchers expand, certain growing pains arise. With larger herds, ranchers are able to put more beef in the market, which in turn means lower prices for cattle. Thorpe said issues such as this are small concerns when held up to issues related to water rights and eminent domain.
“But, you know, this is business as usual for us,” Thorpe said. “The people who are in this business do it because they know how to make money with it. And they do it because they love it — they love the land, and they love the lifestyle.”
For Sullivan, the biggest obstacle Santa Rosa Ranch faces now is a complete 180 from the problems it faced in 2011. The portion of the Trinity River that runs through Sullivan’s Houston lot has come out eight times in the past year and a half.
“It was almost the reverse drought. Half of our ranch was not useful, because it was underwater,” Sullivan said. “So, it was almost the opposite — well it was the opposite. Still the circumstances were very very similar.”
Despite this, Sullivan is grateful for the rain. After her ranch flooded Memorial Day weekend, Sullivan said her land had a small dry spell.
As Sullivan puts it, in Texas, “you’re only two weeks from a drought.”
Originally posted on The Eagle.