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“More ranchers are selling this year and the drought is more widespread,” he said. “Last July I ran 9,300 cattle through my market and this July I ran 6,500 cattle through here. I just don’t think the cattle are out there.”


Over the past two years, the stockyards owner said he has seen Oklahoma’s cattle inventory decline as more and more cattle pass through his sale ring. Due to either high cattle prices that appealed to ranchers or expensive input costs that drove them out of business, ranchers have defi nitely down- sized. Month after month, cattle prices climbed into unchar- tered territory, but in the last few months, prices have started to fall.


“Our gross income is down 30 percent but we’re still seeing good cattle prices,” Eaves said. “I think we have sold out so many people because of the bad weather. They haven’t gotten back into the business and that’s led us to these low cattle numbers.”


Eaves is also a rancher and said he hates to see producers drop out of the cattle business permanently. Building back a strong cattle herd is a tedious job and he’s afraid many ranch- ers who sold out will never buy back when conditions fi nally improve.


“It’s my livelihood and I love agriculture,” he said. “I don’t like seeing people quit.”


As a result of herd liquidation, the U.S. Department of Ag- riculture reports the nation’s cattle inventory is at an all-time low of 97.8 million head, the smallest amount since 1973. On a state level, Oklahoma State University animal science profes- sor David Lalman said Oklahoma beef cow numbers dropped from 2 million to 1.7 million this year. Consequently, the de- cline will negatively impact Oklahoma’s economy, a market that depends on cattle trends and the overall agricultural in- dustry.


“In the 2011 drought, we lost 14 percent of our inventory and it will likely decline again this year,” Lalman said. “There’s just no way with the forage conditions we’re facing now that we’re going to be able to maintain that number of beef cows.” The animal science expert said hay resources across the country that were available in 2011 are now tapped out due to a broader and more extensive drought. As a result, many ranchers have no choice but to sell off some of their herds, posing the question of how to build back once the drought subsides.


“We’re not going to be able to jump in next spring after some good winter and spring rainfall and restock at full ca- pacity,” Lalman said. “In talking to our range specialists and our agronomy folks, they’re all cautioning producers to take a slow rebuilding approach for the long-term benefi t of the pastures and rangeland.”


Lalman said a lot of plant species have been damaged over the past couple of years and it could take two to fi ve years to return a pasture to its full crop-yield potential. Then there’s the issue of how costly buying back quality cows and replace- ment heifers could become.


“If producers can maintain a nucleus of cows, there’s no question they’d be in a good position at the end of the drought because in the recovery phase, cows are going to be worth a lot of money,” he said.


Unfortunately, as cattle ranchers activate emergency plans for feeding and watering their cattle in the 2012 drought, the thought of a recovery process is not even on the radar. Pro- ducers must fi rst survive the remaining summer days of no rain and excessive heat. Although some may have to downsize, Oklahoma’s ranchers are resilient.


“In agriculture, you take the good, the bad and the ugly and you make the best of it,” Courtney of Courtney Farms said. “My dad always told me that you’re always 30 days away from a drought and you’re always 30 days away from a fl ood, so I’m waiting on the fl ood.” OL


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