The landscape of North Texas might change dramatically in the coming years.
Despite the recent rains, Wise County ranchers need much more of it on a regular basis. The drought must end, and quick, or it might mean the end of ranching, and a way of life, for many folks.
James Haynes lives near Paradise by the winding waters of the West Fork of the Trinity River.
The land has belonged to his family since the late 1800s.
“My family moved from Sand Hill to here because of the wild beef running down the river,” Haynes said.
Wild cattle ran up and down the river bottom. His family moved there to hunt the animals. With open range land, it was common for cattle to slip into the wild.
Living in the level flood plain, he’s able to use wells to draw water and irrigate some of his pasture. It’s a luxury most ranchers in the area can’t use. He dumps about 325,000 gallons per day on the Bermuda grass. Although the irrigation helps, it also makes him ineligible for federal farm subsidies to help ranchers dealing with the drought.
As a few drops of rain begin to fall, Haynes and a ranch hand load up a range feeder onto the back of a pickup truck.
“We usually have this put up this time of year, but we need it out this year because of the drought,” Haynes said.
He’s had to cut his heard of cattle down to about 200. Before the drought started last summer he had about 325 on his ranch.
“If the drought continues we’ll probably sell more cows,” Haynes said. “It’s hard to make a profit.”
Ron Gill, a professor at Texas A&M in the Department of Animal Science, said this is worst drought he’s seen in his 27 years as a livestock specialist.
He’s got a ranch between Boyd and Decatur where he’s testing out some more drought tolerant breed of cattle.
“What we’re doing isn’t new or rocket science,” Gill said. “Most ranchers have moved to Angus and other breeds that aren’t heat tolerant. We’re just breeding some cattle called Hotlanders. They are more tolerant to drought, and they do better on lower quality grass that grows in hotter and drier climates.”
He started breeding his type of cattle in Wise County last year. Such breeds might be necessary if ranchers intend to survive in North Texas. Especially if the drought continues.
In the current situation, he said North Texas needs to return to normal rainfall averages for the next three to four years at least for ranchers to recover.
“It’s going to take years of regular rainfall for pastures to rebuild what has been lost,” Gill said. “Climatologists are predicting warmer summers and milder winters. If it doesn’t end, it’s going to be a game changer. Ranchers will have to start completely selling out.”
He’s already witnessed this in South and West Texas where the drought has been longer and worse than North Texas.
“I’ve seen great ranchers having to sell off genetic work,” Gill said “These are good ranchers. Hard workers. It’s tough to see.”
Ranchers all over Wise County have had to sell off large portions of their herds. They are waiting for regular rainfall to see if they can replenish their stock.
If not, everything will change. Less livestock will lead to less work at the sale barns, fewer feed lots and closures at packing plants. It could redefine and reshape the entire industry.
Gill has seen years as bad as the last two, just not back to back. If it continues, the entire landscape of North Texas might change, as cattle no longer dot the rolling prairies.