Drought taking big bite out of Kansas cattle herds
WICHITA (AP) -- Kansas cattle farmers are being forced to sell off some or all of their herds because the prolonged drought has burned up pastures and driven grain prices sharply higher.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last week that the number of cattle headed to Kansas feedlots in September was the lowest on record for that month, down 25 percent from September 2011. The number of cattle sold by feedlots to packers in the state fell 17 percent from a year ago and tied for the worst month ever.
The Wichita Eagle reported (http://bit.ly/PAv9Z6 ) that the industry had expected a steep drop for months.
Drought and high temperatures burned up pastures and farm ponds in southern Kansas last year, and despite a wet spring, those same conditions engulfed the state in 2012. This pushed the cost of forage and feed sharply up and left livestock farmers with little choice but to shrink their herds to a level their pastures and bank accounts could support.
Graham County farmer Ken Grecian said his pastures could have supported 350 cow-calf pairs in a normal year, but without a generous amount of rainfall he will be lucky if they can support 250 next year.
Grecian said he sold 85 cow-calf pairs in July and by mid-July he decided to wean all of his calves and sell them.
"I've been at this for 40 years, and this is definitely the worst I've seen," he said.
Farmers facing high grain costs and shrinking pasture land can make big profits by selling their calves on the side, said Kansas Livestock Association president Frank Harper, who also is a cattle farmer in Sedgwick.
"I know guys who have had to liquidate a quarter to a third of their herd," he said.
Normal rainfall levels and greener pastures could prompt farmers to start holding back female calves to develop into future mothers, but rebuilding a herd isn't easy. Experts said it takes three to five years for a herd to rebound, and during that time feeder cattle and beef will be in tight supply.
That means prices will be high for feedlots, packers and consumers for at least a few years, said Todd Allen, president of Cargill Cattle Feeders.
Continued drought could mean more calves and heifers will go to market, containing consumer prices at least in the short term but making a long-term shortage even more severe, he said.
"Like any commodity industry, you have to be one of the most efficient producers to survive," he said. "Unlike with row crop producers, there isn't any federal crop insurance. Producers have to be in the top 25 percent (low cost) to thrive."