Drought forces better management practices
National Report —Years of dry weather followed by the worst drought in Texas' history is forcing ranchers there to make some tough decisions and leaving food-animal and equine veterinarians wondering what the next few years will hold.
From January through November, the state saw less than 13 inches of rain—less than half of the normal rainfall. And Texas has been fighting dry weather patterns for the past two years. Pastures are dried out and that's led to fewer calves.
Large-animal veterinarian Clint Calvert believes something positive has emerged from the tough climatic conditions."It has forced people into better management," Calvert explains.
Alvarado Veterinary Clinic in Alvarado, Texas, a mixed-animal practice, has actually been busier than usual.
"Those who palpated got rid of their calves early on," Calvert says. "We've probably done more on large animals this year, reproductive-wise, than in years past. Are we vaccinating as many calves? Of course not, because they are leaving earlier."
The 12-person practice, located 20 miles south of Ft. Worth, may be seeing an increase in large-animal business for now, but that doesn't mean it will last. During the coming years as the weather hopefully improves and the pastures grow back, ranchers slowly will begin to replace their cattle. In the meantime, the small-animal side of the business will have to offset the lagging large-animal side.
American Association of Bovine Practitioners Executive Vice President M. Gatz Riddell Jr., DVM, agrees that if cattle herds don't move back to the area, clinics will have to change practice structures.
"They're not closing up," Riddell says. "Over the decades in the United States, food-animal production has shifted from one area to another, and food-animal veterinarians have to be willing to move to where the animals are. While herds have been moved to different areas of the country where there are greener pastures and there has been some negative impact, I believe they will move back with time."
It could be a year, maybe longer, before that could happen, Riddell speculates.
"It's a cycle," he says. "And we are just at the mercy of Mother Nature. If the drought conditions improve, and the weather patterns rearrange themselves, I am fairly confident the herds will come back."
Texas lost 600,000 head in 2011, bringing the population down from 5 million to 4.4 million, a 12 percent decrease. Nearby states also saw population decreases. But while states like Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas are losing cattle, populations are growing in northern plain states, such as Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
As a result, nationally, cattle numbers dropped by just 2 percent.
Still, large-animal veterinarians in the south have cause for concern. Weather patterns refuse to cooperate and the cost of feed has skyrocketed.
David T. Bechtol, DVM, a researcher with Palo Duro Consulting Beef Medicine and Feedlot Consultation, says the drought and subsequent fires led cattle to be weaned earlier and ranchers have had to move cattle all over because the price of grain and hay is too much to feed the cows.
"There has been a big change in the cattle numbers, of course," he says. "It will come back, but it's going to take time."
Calvert hopes that when the population returns, cattle owners have learned from the experience.
"Some owners saw what was coming and got rid of their herds early," he says. "Others held on even after hay prices started to go crazy. They were going several states over to get what they could just to get by, but the cows started to suffer."
Without pastures to graze in and not enough feed, they were starving.
"The last two to four years, the pastures were just grazed down to nothing," Calvert says. "This year was just devastating. We were kind of dry coming into the drought. We had a dry spring and then this summer, just nothing."
When Calvert spoke to DVM Newsmagazine in January, he reported it was raining in Alvarado.
"When the pastures do come back, I just hope they don't overpopulate. So when the dry years do come, and they don't have grass out there, we're not faced with the same situation again."