The Department of Agriculture in late July released its mid-year cattle report, which showed a declining U.S cattle and calf
inventory. The 1.1 percent drop was greater than expected due to accelerated sales, but those numbers don't take into account
the even greater liquidation that occurred in the last days of July and then into August.
What's more, ranchers are holding fewer heifers for herd replacement. As of July 1, the number of heifers held dropped 4.5
percent, or 200,000 head, over the year earlier.
As cattle move to slaughter or are sold live to producers in other states, Oklahoma's Hall believes his state may require
three to four years to return its cattle herd to normalized levels. Although, he cautions, that estimate assumes "normal years
starting this fall and winter."
Cattle being sold are also not always in peak physical form. Feeding hay, when it is available, isn't as productive as normal
forage, so body weights are down. Ensuring animals are healthy for movement and prepping them for crossing state lines has
kept veterinarians in the drought zone busy. "There's a big flurry of work right now," says New Mexico's Fly. "But in the
long run, we're going to have a lesser amount of work."
The situation is similar in Oklahoma, where Hall has worked to encourage the state's food-animal practitioners. "I know how
hard it is when it's hot and dry, and I know how that wears on you," he says. "I can only imagine how tough it is for our
veterinarians to go out there every day, physically and mentally."
The mental aspect may be particularly trying. As more ranchers liquidate their herds, it is generally acknowledged that many,
particularly those who are older, won't re-enter the market when conditions improve. "It hurts our rural economy, and we'll
lose some institutional knowledge from people who have spent a lifetime getting that experience," says Hall. "It's very bad
in that respect."
For veterinarians, the concern is that clients will dry up just like the pasture lands. "A lot of veterinarians in the west
and northwestern part of (Oklahoma) stay busy in the fall processing wheat-pasture cattle, and if we don't get rain soon,
there won't be any (work)," says Hall. "It's just a bad situation all around." He, along with his contemporaries, are hoping
and praying for rain, but if climatic models prove accurate, the drought could continue for months.
And in that case, the future remains unclear. "It's cattle. It's crops. It's water supply," says Texas A&M's Hall. "It's the
perfect storm as far as droughts are concerned. If you don't have water, you can't do much."