A saying exists among Texas Hill Country ranchers that we live in a permanent drought only interrupted by periodic flash floods. Well if so, then bring on the flash floods! To no surprise for those in the region, we are suffering one of the worst droughts of all time. The 2011 drought that actually began during the last quarter of 2010 remains severe and shows no sign of abating. Many ranchers by now have sold off their herds. In will take a couple of growing seasons for the grass to reestablish enough to support grazing. Others have maintained their cattle and hold onto them with the tenacity of a koala to a Eucalyptus tree.
Recently I heard an experienced rancher describe what it’s like when he walks across his parched pasture as, “like walking on toast.” As bad as this is, it’s even worse when walking silently over only dessicated dirt.
I made the decision two years ago to thin my cattle herd but to keep most. I had a herd of really good, young heifers and like a crazed gambler in Las Vegas, I felt my luck was sure to change any day. Two years later, I fear my doubling down was a sucker’s bet. The drought requires feeding hay–hay hard to impossible to grow and expensive to buy. The choice becomes really how one loses money; sell your herd and buy it back high, or keep your herd and buy costly hay. It’s a Hobsen’s choice to be sure.
Needless to say, I obsessively fret over my not very enticing options. I pride myself on being a good steward of the land, but when push comes to shove, I will look after my livestock first. My real choice at this point is whether to sell off the herd and wait for the land to recover, or fight on with the grass I have bought and stored in the barn.
We are now into September, around these parts the second heaviest rain month of the year. Nevertheless, the average September rainfall is a bit below 2.5 inches, hardly enough to impact this fierce drought. With wanting eyes, we ranchers look to the Gulf for a tropical storm to head our direction and rain heavily down upon us. The earlier predicted robust hurricane season has already flopped. Now our chances for a tropical storm diminish by the day like a chocolate cake at a convention of sumo wrestlers. But Hill Country denizens remain steadfastly hopeful, perhaps how the Comanche desperately hoped for a miracle to turn back the relentless western expansion of the white man.
Periodic thunderstorms head our way. To date they are like a stripteaser and only tempt us. Mostly the rains that come are limited and not the long, drenching rains that are much needed to replenish our tanks, streams, and wells.
As I longingly search the sky, I despair not knowing what to do with my herd. I only know that I need to make a decision in the near future. Will my attachment for the herd prevail, or will my desire for good stewardship for the land win out- I know not. I am sad and conflicted. Tune in…