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Texas wildfires impacting Panhandle ranchers but not overall cattle and beef prices

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WRITTEN BY
Adam Russell

 

Texas wildfires impacting Panhandle ranchers but not overall cattle and beef prices

Texas Crop and Weather Report – March 5, 2024

Wildfires in the Texas Panhandle caused significant cattle losses for individual ranchers, but should not impact beef cattle markets or consumers, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert.

 

red and white hereford cow drinking from a water tank with the scorched land from the recent wildfires in the background. The wildfires are not expected to impact beef prices
The wildfires have damaged and disrupted cattle operations in the Panhandle, but AgriLife Extension experts say cattle and infrastructure losses will impact individual producers and not ripple into the Texas or U.S. cattle and beef market. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Sam Craft)

David Anderson, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension economist in the Texas A&M Department of Agricultural Economics, Bryan-College Station, said it may be weeks before there are estimates for lost cattle, but he expects the impact of the wildfire to be localized.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire that started in Hutchinson County has burned more than 1 million acres across the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma. The size and scope of the fire along with reports about the Panhandle being home to 85% of the state’s beef cattle herd has led to inferences about large-scale cattle losses.

Much of the state’s cattle herd does move through the Panhandle because the region is a major hub for feedlots where beef cattle are fed grain before being processed. However, beef cow populations are spread throughout the state.

For instance, in 2023 the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service county-by-county inventory reports showed 17,000 beef cattle in Hemphill County, which was hard hit by the fires. By comparison, at the same time Gonzalez County, east of San Antonio, was home to 54,000 beef cattle.

“I’ve been getting a lot of questions about whether this fire would impact cattle prices and consumers, but the short answer is, no,” Anderson said. “I think some people were under the impression there could be a significant percentage of the Texas herd lost, but that is not the case. It’s devastating if your ranch and your herd is in the disaster area, but it won’t really impact cattle or beef prices because of the numbers and scale of the entire market.”

Counting losses

Anderson said individual losses could mount very quickly for producers in the fire’s path, especially considering cattle values and the cost of infrastructure like fencing.

Cattle prices continue to trend upward and set all-time records. Anderson expects that trend will continue into 2025 because the U.S. and Texas herd has shrunk over the past two years due to drought.

Cattle values range based on factors like age and class, he said. Cull cows, which are cows aging out of calf production, and typically weigh around 1,200 pounds, were selling for $1 per pound last week. On the other end, a 500-600 pound calf was selling for more than $3 per pound.

Calf prices continue to set records. Calves in the 500-600-pound range were averaging $2.35 per pound this time last year compared to $3.14 per pound last week.

Spring calving season is underway, which means the wildfire could have erased the value of a productive cow and future value of any calf lost, Anderson said.

“This was a year to make up for a heck of a lot of drought, and the cost of holding on through drought,” he said. “I think there was some optimism with conditions improving and record high prices. It’s just terrible for producers who lost productive cows and potential record prices for spring calves.”

Infrastructure losses will vary for individual producers as well, Anderson said. Damage can range considerably when considering structures, hay stocks, fences and equipment. Fencing alone costs about $3 per foot to replace.

“How many miles of fence are in those 1 million acres that burned?” he asked. “It’s going to be a big number. Then you have the loss of hay and grass for grazing. The impacts of the fires are going to be felt for a while.”

Anderson noted that producers across Texas and in nearby states are shipping hay and other needed supplies to help producers impacted by the fires. AgriLife Extension’s Disaster Assessment Recovery, DAR, unit is coordinating recovery efforts, including intake of material and feed donations in the area. General information about donations or relief efforts can be obtained by calling 806-354-5800. Several Animal Supply Points have been set up where those with hay, feed or fencing materials or with equipment to haul hay can help.

Texas, U.S. herd rebuild still ahead

Anderson said he hopes producers impacted by the wildfire receive the assistance they need to recover. Rebuilding a herd amid record-high cattle prices will make it difficult.

The beef cattle herd in Texas is the smallest – 4.1 million head – since 2014. The Texas herd started to recover from the 2011-2012 drought after that low point.

The nation’s beef cow herd fell 2% since last year to 28.2 million head, according to the USDA cattle inventory report. Anderson said the report estimate is the lowest number of U.S. beef cows since 1961.

The Texas herd expanded rapidly after the 2011-2012 drought, and prices spiked in 2015. But that may not be the case this time because of high prices and lingering drought conditions.

Anderson said he has still not seen definitive signs that producers have begun holding back replacement heifers at rates that suggest widespread rebuilding of the Texas or U.S. herds. Expansion of the state and national herd can take years.

Heifers born this spring would begin producing calves in two years. Calves born to those newly productive cows would not start impacting U.S. beef production until two years after that, or 2028.

“Restocking is difficult when prices are high, and so far we’re looking at slower expansion of the Texas herd,” he said. “Losing animals at a time like this is a terrible blow, but we’re still expecting even higher prices in 2025 and beyond.”

AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

A map of the state of Texas divided into the 12 AgriLife Extension districts.

CENTRAL

The district bounced back and forth between warm and cool weather but saw warmer-than-usual temperatures. Light rain fell in some areas. Soil moisture remained fair to good. The sunny days dried out any excess moisture in the soil. Warm-season grasses emerged and good grazing conditions in some areas reduced the need for grain feeding of cattle. Producers planted crops due to the good weather conditions. A significant amount of corn was planted. Grain sorghum planting began and was nearly complete in one county. Most wheat fields were top-dressed and looked good but could use some rain. Cool-season annuals took off with the sunshine available. The warm weather conditions led to many transitions for small horticulture crops preparing for spring. Some rust was observed but in low quantities. Supplemental feeding of livestock continued. Livestock remained in fair to good condition.

ROLLING PLAINS

A few counties in the Rolling Plains received slight rainfall last week, but no widespread or heavy moisture was experienced. The areas that did get some rain reported a greening of pasture grasses. Soil moisture currently remains steady and adequate for continued wheat growth. Cattle were starting to show gains due to good winter wheat grazing. Producers reported good body conditions for stocker calves and mature livestock.

COASTAL BEND

Weather conditions varied, affecting agricultural activities. Some areas experienced excessive moisture, hindering equipment use, while others saw fair weather for corn and sorghum planting where field moisture allowed. Grain planting was underway, and corn planting was in full swing. Preplant fertilizer application preceded corn and grain sorghum planting in certain regions, promoting winter pasture growth. Producers continued feeding cattle supplements. Cattle prices were rising.

EAST

Warmer temperatures and windy days have dried out the soil. Rain was needed to replenish subsoil and topsoil moisture. Grasses began to emerge and grow. Gardens started to be planted. Livestock were in fair to good condition, with some supplementation taking place. The hay supply was short. Smith County reported producers were sending supplies to the Panhandle for wildfire relief.

SOUTH PLAINS

The district received brief moisture every few days, which was great for the winter wheat crop. With recent moisture and warmer-than-usual temperatures, wheat had started growing. Cattle were in good condition and some producers continued supplemental feeding until spring grasses started emerging.

PANHANDLE

The Panhandle region battled the largest blaze in Texas history, the Smokehouse Creek Fire. Since igniting last Monday, the Smokehouse Creek Fire incinerated more than 1 million acres of the Texas Panhandle and was still only 15% contained. The fire crossed into Oklahoma, where more than 31,000 acres were burned. With very low humidity and very high winds, the region continues to battle the blaze. High wind velocities experienced early and late in the week elevated evaporation losses. A few growers were getting underway with field preparation including various tillage and fertilizer applications for planting warm-season crops in April and May. Supplemental watering events were picking up on irrigated wheat, oat and other small grain fields.

NORTH

Topsoil and subsoil were reported as adequate to surplus for all counties across the district. Pasture and rangelands were reported as good to fair for most counties. Temperatures were warmer for this time of year, but the week ended with cooler temperatures. Producers were preparing corn and anticipating improvements in wheat after the warm weather. Grasses were beginning to break dormancy. Oaks and other shade trees were budding. Livestock were in good condition. Hay feeding continues but slows as early grasses emerge.

FAR WEST

Unseasonably warm temperatures were prevalent across the region, with highs in the mid to upper 80s. However, a strong midweek cool front brought colder temperatures and significant moisture. Lows dropped down to the freezing mark in the upper elevations. We received between 0.4″ and 1 inch of rain, which helped freshen the ground for laying off rows and greening the wheat. Significantly more moisture will be needed to fill the profile for summer crops. Some producers were ready for irrigation, while most were still preparing. Some pecan producers were irrigating orchards early to get a head start. The grass was starting to green up in the pastures, primarily in rights-of-way for transmission lines and pipelines where all the brush has been removed, as well as low-lying areas such as tank bottoms. Livestock were in fair condition and producers continued supplemental feeding.

WEST CENTRAL

The district received scattered rain and warmer temperatures in the upper 70s. Wind conditions elevated fire weather conditions, but none were reported. Small grain was topped with fertilizer, and producers were plowing their fields in preparation for sorghum planting. Fruit trees were blooming; those in fair to good condition needed moisture to thrive. Tank and lake levels were dropping. Producers continued supplemental feeding their herds. Light feeder calves were steady, and stocker cattle numbers were up at local sale barns.

SOUTHEAST

Strong winds across the district killed out pastures, but later in the week, scattered rain brought back moisture. Ryegrass and clover were growing well for winter feeding. Some winter forages were greening up and summer forages were emerging. Bermuda grass was beginning to emerge with the warm weather. Ponds and tanks were full, and trees started to bud out in some areas. Calf prices at local sale barns dropped.

SOUTHWEST

A rollercoaster of temperatures was experienced, ranging from the low 90s to the 50s. Cool and windy conditions during the week posed little threat to agricultural production, although dry conditions hindered further green up of cool-season forage. No precipitation was reported. Deciduous wild trees and pecans began budding and were expected to bloom in the coming weeks. Producers were starting to till their land in preparation for the planting season. Row crop production continued, and planting was expected to begin in late March. Corn planting continued. Irrigated winter wheat was in good condition. Dryland oats were a total loss, while irrigated oats were starting to head out. Pastures were green but needed more moisture to stimulate good spring growth. Coastal sandbur remained a problem, but lack of rainfall prevented most land managers from being able to apply pre-emergent herbicides. Producers were still heavily supplementing livestock and wildlife. Hay supplies were dwindling, and the body conditions of livestock and wildlife were deteriorating due to the lack of rain.

SOUTH

The district experienced warmer-than-average temperatures during the beginning of the week, with cooler temperatures throughout the weekend. Strawberry plants were starting to produce some fruit. Spring vegetables were being planted. Wheat and oat crops were progressing under irrigation. Producers were already planting or prepping fields for corn and cotton. Pasture and rangeland conditions were poor to good, and some areas had available grazing. Producers continued supplemental feeding their herds. Local sale barns were slowing down for all classes, but prices were strong and steady. Some hay producers were shipping surplus hay to the Panhandle to assist with the shortage due to the wildfires.

 

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