Bone Dry

Ruined crops, depleted herds, raging wildfires, and water rationing: I thought I had lived through our most devastating drought forty years ago, but this one may be worse.

DROUGHT IS NO LAUGHING MATTER, BUT RANCHERS AND FARMERS have traditionally fallen back on a sense of humor to help them through hard times, when the choice is either to laugh or to cry. In the “big dry” of the fifties, a time when it seemed that it would never rain again, farmers told of a milo crop so short that one had to apply lather in order to cut it. Today, with pastures running short on grass and feed prices at unaffordable levels, stockmen say that the drought has created a new job: tail gunner on a feed truck.

Though the current drought is still young compared with the one in the fifties, it has already had severe economic consequences in rural Texas. It has lowered lake and river levels, all but ruined a spring wheat crop, and forced a sell-off of huge numbers of cattle on the poorest market in more than a decade. Texas suffered a rash of land-scorching wildfires in late winter and early spring as dried-up grass seemed only to be waiting for a spark. More can be expected until rain falls or the old vegetation is completely gone, grazed off or blown away by withering hot, dusty winds.

When does a dry spell become a drought? In West Texas it has to linger two or three years before most natives will concede that it has become a full-fledged drought. In East Texas, where the ground cracks open when rains fail to come in a timely manner, a year of low rainfall may be called a drought.

Drought is like a hungry roaming wolf, returning periodically to old haunts to kill again. The great drought of the 1880’s lives only in tradition and folklore, and that of 1918 is rapidly fading from memory. Now the yardsticks are the droughts of the thirties and the fifties. My personal image of the thirties is a memory of my father checking a pasture after a passing shower, cutting a triangular piece of soil as he would plug a watermelon to see how deeply the moisture had penetrated. I remember his disappointment when only a quarter-inch of mud clung to his knife blade. The combination of financial hardship and dry weather left an invisible scar. The rest of his life, my father always expected the next depression and the next drought to start today, or tomorrow at the latest.

Unquestionably the most prolonged drought of our own time came in the fifties. It is usually described as having been seven years long, though it lasted ten years in some areas along and west of the Pecos River and less than seven in parts of East and southeast Texas. I was an agricultural reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times then, and the drought was my running story for seven years. I watched the people I was writing about—many of them good friends, some of them members of my family—struggling to endure that seemingly interminable calamity a day at a time, a month at a time, a year at a time.

The current drought has many of the same earmarks. By early May of this year, Amarillo had been without significant rainfall longer than in any single period during the fifties. Panhandle dryland fields had a mere shadow of a wheat crop, its probable yield the poorest of four consecutive substandard harvests. Between January 1 and April 28, shortfalls from normal rainfall ranged from 9 percent in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley to 31 percent on the lower rolling plains, 33 percent in East Texas, and 50 percent in North Central Texas. Though the statewide total for 1995 was only a little below average, most of last year’s rainfall came in the first six months, leaving the last half of the year relatively dry.

Texas is not alone. Drought conditions are equally bad across New Mexico and in much of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. Ironically, even as Texas farmers are unable to plant spring crops because of dry soil, many in the Corn Belt cannot plant because of excessive rainfall. Drought and flood seem to be cousins, born to a malevolent family line.

This is happening at a time when prices for ever-scarcer wheat and corn supplies keep setting new records. Corn on the South Plains was as high as $9.78 per one hundred pounds (or cwt) in mid-May and reaching for $10, a farmer’s dream. Of course this booming market means nothing to a farmer who has none to sell, and most in Texas do not. Their last crops passed into the hands of dealers months ago, at much lower prices.

If the farmer owns livestock, the escalating grain prices are driving down the return he can expect for his cattle. As feedlots pay more and more for grain and find it costing 90 cents to $1 to put a pound of gain on a steer, they make up the difference the only way they can: by paying less for replacement feeders. Lack of grass forces the rancher to purchase more supplemental feed than he normally would. His costs rise a little each time he buys a load of grain cubes or hay, yet the demand for feed forces down the price he can get for his calves. He is like an innocent bystander caught in a crossfire between rising costs and falling income.

Calf prices range widely, depending upon quality and weight, but a five-hundred-pound feeder at 50 cents a pound would bring $250. A new ranch pickup, practical but not overly fancy, is likely to cost $15,000 to $20,000, ten times more than forty years ago. That means he would have to sell sixty to eighty calves to pay for it. During the fifties drought, twelve to fifteen calves would have bought a pickup comparable for its time.

A story is being told, possibly apocryphal but plausible enough, about a South Texas dairyman who hauled five small Holstein bull calves to a nearby auction. Bull calves are a nuisance in the dairy industry but

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