SAN ANTONIO, Texas (AFP) – A record drought is forcing Texas cattle ranchers to send their cows to slaughter because it's too costly to keep buying feed for herds finding little forage in parched pastures.
"If I knew it would rain in the next two months, we'd buy hay or feed and carry these cows on," said Pete Bonds, who raises about 7,000 cows on his nearly 4,000-acre (1,600-hectare) ranch near Fort Worth.
The problem for ranchers like Bonds is that "only God knows when it's going to rain."
And if conditions don't improve in the next few weeks, he may have to cull as many as 1,000 cows from his herd.
Dry spells are nothing new to Texas cattlemen, the bulk of whom operate ranches that have been in their families for generations.
It's a good life for them, and for the cattle.
Unlike the cramped conditions of "factory" farms elsewhere in the country, most Texas cattle roam free on sprawling ranches, eating brush and grasses and drinking from natural creeks and man-made ponds.
But the first six months of this year have been the driest since records began to be kept in 1895.
Pastures are filled with patches of dry dirt. The grasses that are still alive crackle under foot.
And the drought which began in October has sparked one of the worst wildfire seasons on record.
More than 13,000 wildfires have burned more than 3.2 million acres in Texas where the situation has become so bad that many counties even banned Independence Day fireworks.
"Ranchers have experienced wildfires, long term drought, severe flooding, exceptionally cold winters and high feed costs for several years," said Bill Hyman, executive director of the Independent Cattlemen's Association of Texas.
Their endurance is starting to wear thin, he said and they are "exiting the industry in large numbers due to losses."
"In Texas, you can't find anyone in agriculture who's not suffering," added Gene Hall, a spokesperson of the Texas Farm Bureau.
"The wheat crop is already toast, corn is in serious trouble and the cattle situation is very bad."
One of the broadest impacts has been on cotton, because Texas accounts for nearly half of the US crop.
"Cotton conditions have never been lower than they are right now for any time in the growing season," said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the US Department of Agriculture.
"It's been so hot that even irrigation in some cases is not helping the situation because of the intense heat and the low humidity. So cotton is in big trouble early in the year and it would take a major weather pattern change, which does not appear to be on the horizon," to save the crop.
Texas producers have ginned, or treated, between 4.5 and 8 million bales of cotton in the past eight years. This year, they're forecast to get just 2.5 million bales, said Kelley Green of the Texas Cotton Ginners Association.
Chuck Real has been forced to tap into stockpiles of hay that he hasn't planned on using until the winter to feel his herd of 100 cows near San Antonio.
"The Good Lord was very good to us and let us put up a lot of hay last year in the spring of 2010. That was the last time it really rained," he told AFP.
He had been hoping to hang onto his cows until they reached the ideal slaughter weight of 500 to 600 pounds. But it's likely he's going to end up having to cut his losses because it's too costly to buy feed.
"We'll have to sell them at 400 pounds because we're running out of grass," Real said.