It was shipping day on the McFaddin Ranch, south of Victoria, TX, but this day didn't carry the sense of accomplishment that most shipping days bring. Instead, on this mid-August day, ranch owner Bob McCan was shipping 400 replacement heifers to greener pastures, thanks to intense and prolonged drought.

South Texas drought led McCan to make the difficult decision to sell his calves a month early and destock his ranch by more than 50%. Earlier in the week, McCan had shipped 150 cows bought by out-of-state ranchers. The day before that, ranch hands had gathered these 400 heifers in a cloud of dust that followed them from pasture to pens, and billowed around them as half of the heifers were loaded on trucks.

These particular heifers were headed to his cousin's ranch in Winnie, TX. McCan has put many years of hard work with a scrutinizing eye into developing exceptional genetics in his herd of ¾ Hereford, ¼ Brahman cattle. Instead of having to sell his prized replacement heifers due to the drought, he opted to find some leased land for them. His cousin had lost half his cattle herd in Hurricane Ike in 2008 and is trying to rebuild his ranch and his herd.

“We just seem to go from one disaster to another,” McCan says, shaking his head. “I was calling around trying to find a place to go with my heifers. I asked him if his ranch was open for business yet. He said he was just putting up the last of his fences. I told him, ‘Good! I'm shipping you cattle two days later.'”

Rainfall scant

Average rainfall for the Victoria area is 40 in./year, but only 6 in. fell from January through mid-August. And, the area was already moisture deficient; only 20 in. fell in 2008.

On the last morning of shipping, an unexpected band of thunderstorms passed through the area the night before, bringing much-needed moisture to the parched land. The rain gauge near the shipping pens indicated a full inch of precipitation — welcome news.

But, at the shipping pens, the cowboys were now working in mud instead of dust. They didn't mind. It had been more than three months since these men had seen even one drop of rain hit the thirsty soil.

The drought, which is considered to have started in November 2007, is desperate over one-third of the Lone Star State. Extreme or exceptional drought has been designated in 78 counties in South Texas by the U.S. Drought Monitor. The area has received a double-whammy with a record number of days in triple-digit temperatures.

In mid-July, Texas AgriLife Extension Service economists reported the scorched crops and rangeland had caused the state's drought losses to reach $3.6 billion, likely to exceed $4.1 billion by the end of the year. In a time of global economic recession, this is a devastating blow to the nation's second-largest agriculture-producing state.

Mario Martinez is a cow-calf rancher with family ranching operations in Jim Hogg, Webb and Zapata counties in South Texas. “We have been in the ranching business for over 100 years and we haven't seen it this bad,” Martinez says.

Climatologists agree. Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon reported in mid-August that at least nine of the 254 counties in Texas were suffering through their driest conditions since modern recordkeeping began in 1895. Those counties include Bastrop, Caldwell and Lee in Central Texas, and Victoria, Bee, San Patricio, Live Oak, Jim Wells and Duval in South Texas.

In an average year, Martinez will receive 23-25 in. of rain on his ranches in the Rio Grande Plain region. However, this year, his ranch near Hebbronville has recorded less than 3 in. of rainfall over the course of the year.

“It is just bare and dry here,” Martinez says of the area. “You can see a jackrabbit from a mile away.”

Many South Texas ranchers have been known to burn thorns off prickly pear cactus to help get their cattle through droughts. Martinez says even the cactus have been so depleted of moisture the cattle won't eat them.

Drought assistance

Martinez sits on the Monte Mucho County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) in Jim Hogg County. He's used financial assistance and planning advice from the local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to implement practices that have helped him fare the drought. Over the past several years, he's utilized NRCS' Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds to do some cross-fencing and install water lines.

“Those projects have been a lifesaver during this drought,” Martinez says. “The smaller pastures have helped us utilize and manage our good grass better. If we hadn't installed the waterlines from our well to the troughs, our ranch would be completely out of water right now and we would have had to sell everything.”

Martinez operates his ranch on a rotational grazing plan with conservative stocking rates. While he normally stocks his ranch at one cow/20 acres, he has culled his herd to about 80% of normal capacity and is down to one cow/30 acres.

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“My dad always taught me to not overstock,” Martinez says. “He said we live in South Texas and we are going to go through droughts on a regular basis, so we need to be prepared. He was right. We just haven't had one this bad.”

Livestock auctions in the drought counties have had high numbers of cattle being sold as ranchers cull their herds and destock their rangeland. In a normal year, the Hallettsville Livestock Commission Company in Hallettsville, TX, averages about 1,500 head of cattle at their weekly sale. Its Aug. 11 sale had a record 4,839 head, more than three times its usual numbers.

McCan has destocked his ranch to less than half its normal carrying capacity, cutting the ranch's livestock revenue by more than half, as well. His ranch normally supports 10 acres/cow, but with the latest shipment off the ranch, he's now running 30 acres/cow.

“It's not just my remaining cows I'm trying to keep in condition,” McCan says, “I'm also looking out for the wildlife. We can't afford to take the turf down to nothing.

“I think ranchers need to explore every option of help available to them,” McCan continues. “There is drought insurance and some NRCS programs that can really help in situations like this. In fact, I don't know how some people survive without them.”

McCan is referring to financial assistance through EQIP and the Grassland Reserve Protection Program (GRP). Don Gohmert, NRCS state conservationist, recently made $4.2 million available in the GRP with a priority given to landowners in the 78 drought-stricken counties. GRP allows landowners to be compensated to defer cattle grazing until grassland conditions improve. The technical and financial assistance programs with NRCS are voluntary and there is no fee to utilize them.

While McCan isn't participating in GRP, he has implemented EQIP practices such as brush suppression, tree-shearing, cross-fencing and waterline installation. McCan also regularly consults with the local NRCS and has an established conservation plan, which includes a drought-management plan with measures that minimize the impact of drought.

“This is all part of my management scheme that helps me grow more grass and distribute my cattle better, even if it's not raining,” McCan says. “And those efforts really pay off when you have a drought this bad. And hopefully, it will rain again and this will help our land recover quicker.”

Dee Ann Littlefield is a NRCS public affairs specialist based in Henrietta, TX.