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The eternal optimists: How Texas’ ranchers, farmers cope during an exceptional drought

Dallas Morning News logo Dallas Morning News 8/30/2022 Nataly Keomoungkhoun, The Dallas Morning News
Dried mud in the rock bed of where the Guadalupe River once flowed, Wednesday, August 10, 2022, in Comfort, Texas. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Dried mud in the rock bed of where the Guadalupe River once flowed, Wednesday, August 10, 2022, in Comfort, Texas.

SOUTH TEXAS — The soil crumbled beneath Russell Boening’s boots as he walked onto his harvested field of sorghum in Floresville, a small town southeast of San Antonio.

A gentle breeze brought momentary relief as the early August sun beat down atop his cream-colored straw hat. Boening kicked at the earth, sending up a small cloud of dust. This year’s harvest was disappointing.

“It’s powder dry,” he said. “We did make some hay off of what was left here, but we didn’t make any grain. We tried to make what we could.”

More than 70% of Texas is experiencing severe drought conditions during one of the most sweltering summers that the state’s farmers and ranchers can remember. Floresville is experiencing exceptional drought conditions, the highest and driest tier classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Feed at Back 40 Supply , Wednesday, August 10, 2022, in Kerrville, Texas © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Feed at Back 40 Supply , Wednesday, August 10, 2022, in Kerrville, Texas

For hundreds of years, farmers and ranchers in Texas battled weather extremes that threatened their livelihoods. In the epic drought of the 1950s, the state received up to 50% less rain than usual. This year, farmers and ranchers reported similar, if not worse, rainfall measurements.

Victoria, which normally receives 40 inches of rain a year, reported about 12 as of early August, one cotton farmer said. A rancher in Pleasanton reported 7¾ inches of rain in the past 12 months, as opposed to the normal 26 to 28 inches.

Boening, who also serves as president of the Texas Farm Bureau, said Floresville has received about 2½ to 3 inches of rain since Nov. 1. By August, there is usually about 18 or 20 inches of measurable rain, he said.

“I’ve been doing this for 41-plus years,” Boening said. “It’s never been this dry in our area in my lifetime.”

Not only is it dry throughout the state, but costs to run an agricultural business continue to rise to unsustainable levels. A lengthy drought for an agricultural business, combined with soaring inflation rates, is like watching money burn. And this season has been extraordinarily fiery.

Rain patters on FM 537, Monday, August 8, 2022, in Floresville, Texas. Since November of 2021 there has been 2.5-3 inches of rain in the area. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Rain patters on FM 537, Monday, August 8, 2022, in Floresville, Texas. Since November of 2021 there has been 2.5-3 inches of rain in the area.

Texas agriculture and inflation

Steve Bauer is a rancher in Kerrville who owns a store that supplies equipment to local farmers and ranchers. In the last year, Bauer said costs due to inflation have hit his small business, forcing inputs — or cost of operating items — for farmers and ranchers to go up as well.

A bale of hay at Double L Ranch & Wildlife Feed is about $160, up from $90 last year. A bag of cattle feed last year was about $350 to $400, but now it’s up to $600, Bauer said.

In the 2017 Census of Agriculture, taken every five years, expenditures for farmers and ranchers nationwide were nearly $326.4 billion. But things have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic and the drought.

Expenditures for farmers and ranchers across the country rose to $392.9 billion in 2021, up from $366.2 billion in 2020. Feed, farm services, livestock and poultry-related expenses, labor and rent accounted for about half of farmers’ expenses.

Texas was ranked No. 3 nationally with an expenditure of $26 billion in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average expenditure per farm in Texas last year was $105,445.

As a producer, Bauer said his inputs have gone way up this year — like every other rancher’s — and managing livestock has gotten expensive. A drought added on top of inflation makes it difficult to keep cattle fed and hydrated.

“My wife and I have reduced our herd by 30% already,” Bauer said. “I’ve been fortunate and have got enough that I can kind of spread them out and hopefully maintain my herd and be able to come out the other side of this when it does start raining again.”

Russell Boening’s farm at sunrise, Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Floresville, Texas. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Russell Boening’s farm at sunrise, Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Floresville, Texas.

Culling is when ranchers choose to sell or part with livestock because of certain genetic traits. Some are sold to other ranchers for breeding or for slaughter.

It happens every year at livestock auctions throughout the state, but this year ranchers showed up to auctions in droves to sell livestock that they couldn’t maintain because of high inputs. Lines to get their livestock in stretched for miles.

Russell Boening’s shadow of where he planted grain sorghum, Monday, August 8, 2022, in Floresville, Texas. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Russell Boening’s shadow of where he planted grain sorghum, Monday, August 8, 2022, in Floresville, Texas.

Ranchers of Texas

Most farmers and ranchers in Texas have been working to feed the U.S. for generations. Some families have been here since before Texas was considered a state, like rancher Sam Snyder’s in Moran, a city east of Abilene.

Russell Boening where he planted grain sorghum, Monday, August 8, 2022, in Floresville, Texas. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Russell Boening where he planted grain sorghum, Monday, August 8, 2022, in Floresville, Texas.

In January, the Snyder family will celebrate 140 years of ranching cattle on the border of Central and West Texas. The climate and environment are perfect for ranching cattle when the rain is decent, he said, but droughts aren’t totally uncommon. Snyder, a 69-year-old who’s been ranching most of his life, said he’s been through five major droughts.

Moisture Reader, Wednesday, August 10, 2022, in Sisterdale, Texas © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Moisture Reader, Wednesday, August 10, 2022, in Sisterdale, Texas

“We have wet times, we have dry times; we have cool and we have hot times,” he said. “Anybody that’s been doing this all their life, this isn’t anything new.”

Due to its size, the state could be experiencing drought at any given time, according to John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State Climatologist and regents professor at Texas A&M University. He assists with weekly updates for the U.S. Drought Monitor on behalf of the state of Texas.

One of the most recent droughts on record started at the end of 2010 and stretched through 2015. Nielsen-Gammon said the drought had a severe period in 2011, considered one of the driest years in Texas history, and resulted in billions of dollars lost in Texas agriculture.

Early this month, Texas hit a high for the year with 68% of the state experiencing extreme drought conditions. But that percentage was not as high as in 2011, which saw more than 90% of extreme drought, Nielsen-Gammon said.

Although drought isn’t unusual, this year has been extremely hot and windy, which Snyder said added more obstacles to an already challenging season.

“Our water supplies have gone down faster than any time I can remember, and I’ve been through a lot of droughts,” Snyder said. “What gets our water is evaporation. With the heat and a lot of wind, and the ground is so hot that when you get rain, it kind of evaporates.”

Water for cattle fills up a trough on Russell Boening’s ranch, Monday, August 8, 2022, in Floresville, Texas. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Water for cattle fills up a trough on Russell Boening’s ranch, Monday, August 8, 2022, in Floresville, Texas.

In Moran, giant tanks are used to catch and store runoff water for cities. Since there hasn’t been much rainfall, many of the tanks are running dry. Snyder said Moran hasn’t had any measurable rain since last September.

Brian Adamek, feels for cotton seeds in his hands Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Victoria, Texas. Adamek comes from a family of farmers. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Brian Adamek, feels for cotton seeds in his hands Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Victoria, Texas. Adamek comes from a family of farmers.

Lack of water means fields that could be used for grazing are bone dry, and they’ve been barren for months. In times like this, some ranchers have adapted to the heat by using other resources, like Pete Pawelek, a rancher in Pleasanton, who often burns prickly pear cactuses as feed for his cattle.

Pawelek sets bushes ablaze and burns off the thorns to allow his cattle to eat the fleshy fruits and pads. Burning prickly pear was a common practice ranchers used in the ′50s when grazing wasn’t a viable option or when hay was too expensive, as it is today.

“You have to feed protein with it and minerals with it and other stuff, but it’s like feeding a real cheap form of hay,” he said. “It’s really cost effective.”

Burning prickly pear isn’t an option for others. Brenda and Charlie Seidensticker have been ranching livestock for nearly five decades in Comfort, a Hill Country community between Fredericksburg and San Antonio. Their home was built by Charlie’s grandfather in 1885 near a bend in the Guadalupe River.

Cotton grows, Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Victoria, Texas. During a normal growing year, the tops of the plant would be full of cotton. This year’s harvest had bottom heavy cotton plants. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Cotton grows, Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Victoria, Texas. During a normal growing year, the tops of the plant would be full of cotton. This year’s harvest had bottom heavy cotton plants.

The Seidenstickers farm about 200 acres to feed their livestock, but this year their yields came up short due to a severe lack of rain. Feed and hay were getting expensive, and water was in short supply.

As a result, the couple sold all of their cattle for the very first time. Even during the 2011 drought, they cut their cattle numbers in half by culling them and built them back up over time.

“We’ve cut back some years but we’ve never had to sell out,” Charlie said. “It was hard. Very hard.”

The Seidenstickers maintain goats and sheep on their pastures and tend to them every morning. Like other ranchers and farmers, the couple is concerned about the lack of rain; Comfort has received about 4.8 inches of rainfall this year, they said, as opposed to the usual 32 to 35 inches.

Brian Adamek, a cotton farmer, Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Victoria, Texas. Adamek comes from a family of farmers. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Brian Adamek, a cotton farmer, Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Victoria, Texas. Adamek comes from a family of farmers.

The intense heat has taken a toll on not only them but the environment. Near their bend of the Guadalupe River, the water has dried up in some parts or almost completely stopped flowing.

When their grandchildren came to visit in years past, the Seidenstickers would take them to the river and wade in the water. Sometimes it was deep enough for a canoe or a kayak to pass through, Brenda said.

Steer wait in a pen before being auctioned off Tuesday, August 9, 2022, at Atascosa Livestock Exchange Inc. in Pleasanton, Texas. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Steer wait in a pen before being auctioned off Tuesday, August 9, 2022, at Atascosa Livestock Exchange Inc. in Pleasanton, Texas.

But where there should have been about 6 inches of water now lies white-hot bedrock. As Brenda walked along the dried-up river bed, she pointed upstream toward a tree with a rope from which her grandchildren would swing. Underneath the rope were exposed and dried roots of cypress trees.

Charlie drives around on the land in the mornings to check on the goats, which on hot, sunny days are typically gathered in the shade. His pickup truck leaves a trail of dust as it drives down the bank of the river, and hot air blows through the open windows.

About a mile downstream are natural springs that have stopped running. The river, although not completely dry, hardly flows.

Brenda said she’s never seen it this low. Charlie said the last time he remembers it this bad was when he was a child in the 1950s.

“In 2011, it got pretty far down, and I think in 1964 it was pretty low again, but I don’t think it quit running,” Charlie said. “This year, she’s on the verge of not running anymore.”

Pete Pawelek stands near his cattle as they eat prickly pears, Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Pleasanton, Texas. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Pete Pawelek stands near his cattle as they eat prickly pears, Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Pleasanton, Texas.

Nielsen-Gammon said rain is in the forecast for parts of the state in the next few weeks, but that doesn’t mean the drought is over. The U.S. Drought Monitor’s three-month outlook for Texas through November shows the state could be facing drier than normal conditions.

But things could easily change.

“Just because the odds are tilted in one direction doesn’t mean that something like that is definitely going to happen,” he said. “But there is a good chance that the rain we get won’t be enough to end the drought, and it may persist for at least the next couple of seasons.”

Russell Boening walks by the field where he planted grain sorghum, Monday, August 8, 2022, in Floresville, Texas. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Russell Boening walks by the field where he planted grain sorghum, Monday, August 8, 2022, in Floresville, Texas.

Yields coming up short

Boening said he knew in January that this year would be tough. After a dry November and December, the rain looked like it was going to be scarce through the summer.

“It was shaping up to be a tough year,” he said. “Now, we had no idea it was gonna be this tough.”

To adapt and prepare for what he predicted would be a difficult harvest, Boening said he switched some of his acres to sorghum, which is more drought tolerant than corn or cotton.

In one field of dryland sorghum, the stalk had grown to about knee high when it was harvested, Boening said. With adequate rainfall, the grains would have been chest high.

With the leftover stalks of sorghum, Boening baled them up into rounds of hay for his livestock. The hay isn’t high quality, but it’ll be a filler to keep his cattle going, he said.

In terms of water, Boening said he’s had to drill wells, which he hasn’t had to do in several years. For a while, some of Boening’s crops were irrigated using water from the San Antonio River, but the water levels got so low that he hasn’t been able to irrigate in more than two months.

“Without water, it’s tough,” he said. “You can’t grow anything.”

Brian Adamek, a corn and cotton farmer in Victoria, knows the feeling all too well. Adamek farms about 2,000 acres near the coast. This year, his yields have been up to 50% less than what he typically harvests.

There were pockets of rain throughout the season, but sometimes it was no more than an inch, and it was certainly not enough to amount to anything, he said. What affected his crops the most was the early and persistent heat, Adamek said.

Summer temperatures crept into Victoria around late April to early May, Adamek said, which meant the bottoms of Adamek’s cotton plants were fine, but the tops of the plants were shriveled. The early heat can also cause issues with how corn grows.

“When you get the heat when the corn is trying to pollinate, that’s not a good thing,” he said. “It will cause the ears not to form correctly.”

Adamek said farmers are wondering about a potential pattern with the drought next year and having to pay the same or higher input costs to grow crops. Right now, Adamek said he pays about 40% to 50% more for fertilizer, chemicals and seed.

If the drought persists through the next harvest, farmers could start to worry, he said.

“If we have a drought with lower yields … then we’re in a bad position because we don’t make enough money to recover the cost that it takes to put the crop in the ground,” he said. “That’s the scary part of it.”

‘Water is our livelihood’

Bauer remembers when he had to sell essentially all of his cattle in 2011. The drought took him out of production, and he was left with the feed store, maintaining some sheep and hay production. It wasn’t until a few years later that he got back into cattle production.

“I’ve got that taste in my mouth of what it’s like to have nothing and feel like you’ve lost what you’ve always wanted to do,” Bauer said. “So we’re fighting a little bit harder.”

The Guadalupe River flows in crevices of its rock bed, Wednesday, August 10, 2022, in Comfort, Texas. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS The Guadalupe River flows in crevices of its rock bed, Wednesday, August 10, 2022, in Comfort, Texas.

Ranchers are pulling resources where they can, but with more expensive inputs, Bauer said outputs could result in higher prices at the grocery store for consumers.

One way to help break that cycle is rain. Rain would make the crops grow. Rain would keep the livestock hydrated. Rain would keep the farmers and ranchers going, Bauer said.

“Water is our livelihood,” Bauer said. “Whether you’re a cow, calf, producer, farmer, wildlife. We got to grow the forage, we got to grow the plants on the ground — they can’t grow without the water.”

Bauer has been ranching his entire life, and even through some of the toughest droughts, he said he wouldn’t trade his profession for anything else.

In a meeting with the Texas Farm Bureau, Bauer said someone asked if any of the farmers and ranchers in the room had gambled. They all looked at each other, not a single one raised their hands, he said.

Then, they admitted that yes, they were all gamblers — optimistic ones, Bauer said.

They are gamblers who place seeds into the ground with the hope that a crop will grow. They are gamblers who breed cows and hope that a calf can be sold months later.

The process of burning prickly pear cactus spines off the plant so cattle can eat the pear, Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Pleasanton, Texas. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS The process of burning prickly pear cactus spines off the plant so cattle can eat the pear, Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Pleasanton, Texas.

“Yeah, we’re gambling, but we’re proud of it,” Bauer said. “Because the ultimate thing is we get to feed the world.”

Ranchers watch cattle get auctioned off Tuesday, August 9, 2022, at Atascosa Livestock Exchange Inc. in Pleasanton, Texas. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Ranchers watch cattle get auctioned off Tuesday, August 9, 2022, at Atascosa Livestock Exchange Inc. in Pleasanton, Texas.

CORRECTION, 12 p.m. Aug. 30, 2022: An earlier version of this story misspelled Brian Adamek’s name.

©2022 The Dallas Morning News. Visit dallasnews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Pete Pawelek burns prickly pear cactus spines off the plant so his cattle can eat the pear, Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Pleasanton, Texas. © Rebecca Slezak/The Dallas Morning News/TNS Pete Pawelek burns prickly pear cactus spines off the plant so his cattle can eat the pear, Tuesday, August 9, 2022, in Pleasanton, Texas.
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