In 2011, cattle raisers sold off entire herds, dwindling the state’s beef herd by 600,000 cows, or 12 percent. Row crop producers had to make do with crop insurance payments, even as most agricultural commodities brought record high prices. It was a lousy year for Texas farmers growing cotton, corn, wheat, peanuts or vegetables. And all on account of the drought, which was statewide.
“East Texas got the amount of rain that West Texas usually gets,” state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon observed. “West Texas got the amount of rain that Death Valley usually gets.”
The year was a game-changer for livestock producers. Forty percent of the Texas cows slaughtered that year were heifers, a sure indicator of a dwindling herd.
“The year 2011 changed the cow-calf world,” Bell County Extension Agent Lyle Zoeller said recently. “People realized they could make more money with less cattle. If you backtrack 10 or 15 years, you find cheap rent, reasonable hay costs. In 2011, they ran out of hay and realized they had too many cattle.”
The drought started in the fall of 2010 when some areas of the state received zero inches of rain. Practically the whole state became a tinderbox. Parched land made combustible by millions of acres of dead vegetation went up in smoke during the worst wildfire outbreak in the state’s history. From November of 2010 through late September 2011, East Texas suffered through 2,000 separate fires.
By Easter weekend, more than 1,800 firefighters from 35 states were battling wildfires over 1.4 million acres of the state. Bastrop County, known for its “lost pines,” lost more than a million of them during September wildfires.
Though it’s been five years since that historic year, the drought lingered, to varying degrees across the state, for two more years. Texas AgriLife Extension Agriculture Economist David Anderson said the numbers show that much of the state is still in recovery mode.
“In more of the middle of the state — the Rolling Plains, Panhandle, West Texas — it’s taken time for ranges and pastures to recover. So while beef cow numbers are up as we expand, they’re not up to pre-drought levels,” he said.
The memory of 2011 and the years immediately before and after are too fresh on producers’ minds for them to ignore the hard lessons from that year, he said, adding, “I suspect that people learned, or were reminded, that they have to consider dry periods when deciding about what their stocking rates should be.”
Rick Machen, a livestock specialist in Uvalde who was recently named the Professor and Paul Genho Endowed Chair at the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, said most producers in Southwest Texas have yet to reach what was once considered “full carrying capacity” on their pastures, either because they learned from the drought or they can’t afford to buy back in.
“The record high prices for replacement females were — literally — off the charts in late 2014 and 2015,” Machen said. “The prices were a huge deterrent to many to expand cow numbers and restocking. Unfortunately, some paid more than what’s justifiable for females and will have a difficult time making a profit with those high-priced cows.”
A decline in feeder calf prices also dampened the hopes of many producers, Machen said.
“Feeder calf prices are still profitable for cost-conscious cow managers, but we all tend to compare those all-time record high prices of yesteryear and think things are worse than they actually are.”
Anderson believes we’re heading for a younger, more profitable cow herd.
“I think we’ll have a lot more cows in their prime, peak productive areas of life at the same time. That might mean we have more calves born than usual,” he said. “I think that will be an interesting development. It’s something fairly subtle in the data, but I think it will show up. A couple percentage points more calves might make a big difference in the total number of calves for sale in a couple of falls.”
Machen, who just returned from a road trip to Nebraska, said this spring’s rains allowed producers to grow an abundance of forage in spring and early summer.
“Hay is everywhere, from the Gulf Coast to Nebraska,” he said. “Several producers I work with are grazing their hay meadows because they have a year-plus supply under the barn.”
Five years after the hottest and driest year on record, pastures are green and the row crops — the ones that didn’t get flooded out — are growing. That terrible, no good, very bad year of 2011 is gone, but it’ll be a long time before it is forgotten.