Nebraska cattle

Bert Straka (second from right) moves cattle into a pasture with help from daughter Susan, son-in-law Ross Luebbe, and granddaughter Brianna near Stuart in 2010. With Texas suffering from drought and grass abundant in the Sandhills, cow-calf pairs are riding north. (JACOB HANNAH/Journal Star file photo)

At the northern and greener end of the hay and cattle lifeline connecting Nebraska and drought-stricken Texas, Van Neidig counted three trailer loads of hay headed through the Grand Island area on U.S. 281 in the span of a few minutes on Tuesday.

"It's absolutely a constant stream of hay going south," said Neidig, a pure-bred producer from Battle Creek and from the nation's second leading cattle state.

At the south end, cattle buyer Rex Maxwell was expecting the effects of another round of herd liquidation to play out on Friday at the livestock sale barn in Gainesville, Texas, 70 miles north of Dallas.

"Every week, somebody sells out," said Maxwell, "two or three that I know of, and I just represent a small area."

Texas, which began the year with twice as many cattle as any other state, is watching that resource shrink rapidly amid one of the worst precipitation shortfalls in its history.

"I was just a young child in the 1950s when there was a bad drought," Maxwell said, "and this may be as bad as that was. And it lasted six years."

The implications of trouble in Texas, in Oklahoma and in southwestern Kansas reach in all directions.

In the near term, there is money to be made in Nebraska from selling a bumper crop of hay at prices 50 percent or more above normal rates and from renting extra grazing acres in the Sandhills, blessed with generous rainfall in 2011.

In the longer term, cattle feedlots in all major cattle-feeding states could face significantly higher prices for replacement animals, because the supply will be much reduced. And consumers aren't going to like what they'll see eventually at the meat counter either, Neidig said.

"Sooner or later, you've got to feed people," he said. "The cattle market is going to be good, but consumers have got to realize prices are going to be going up, because there just aren't that many cattle out there."

Another dimension of wicked weather is the disease potential that comes with hungry cattle coming north for grass.

Nebraska Agriculture Director Greg Ibach is especially concerned about trichomoniasis, a venereal disease that causes cows to miscarry.

"It's a reproductive disease, and it's sexually transmitted," Ibach said. "It's very difficult, if not impossible, to detect in female cattle."

With that in mind and with cow-calf pairs riding northward for hundreds of miles, "We want to make sure that producers are aware that, anytime cattle cross state lines, that they, of course, need to have a health certificate accompanying them."

Cows that are at least four months pregnant are a relatively safe bet to be trichomoniasis-free.

None of these precautions are meant to add to the misery being felt in Texas as water sources dry up and cattle that represent decades of careful breeding go thin in the ribs.

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"Our hearts go out to them for that," Ibach said. "Hopefully, they will find some alternatives that will allow them to keep some of their genetics."

Southwestern and south-central Nebraska went through something similar, although not as severe, a decade ago.

"Many producers were having to liquidate herds they spent years developing," he said.

Gene Cone, manager of the Burwell livestock sale barn, said a feed emergency can't be cheaply resolved at $3.85 or more a mile for hay and cattle.

In his Sandhills area, there's more hay moving out than cattle moving in.

But cattle coming to Nebraska can't go home until it rains and grass has a chance to recover. That means owners of Texas cattle in their prime reproductive years are looking ahead to next year and contingency plans for 2012.

"They're also looking for places to summer some of them," Cone said.

Even if relief comes soon, the shrinking of cow numbers already has gone too far to prevent major impact.

"I'll guarantee you we'll face a shortage of feeder cattle in the near future," he said.

As the repercussions reach the retail level, prices could reach a point where consumers back away from beef.

"You can price yourself to a place where you do restrict demand," Cone said.

Michael Kelsey, chief executive of the Nebraska Cattlemen, said the meatpacking industry also will feel the effects.

"The feeder industry and the packing industry are constructed on a per head unit basis," Kelsey said, "the number of hooks for the packer, the number of head and bunk space for the feeder."

Nebraska is in relatively good position to absorb more cattle, he said. "We have the feed and we have the packing industry."

But nobody with a major stake in beef is going to be spared from the effects of trouble in Texas.

"I think it puts us in a state of volatility -- or maybe the better term -- there are more unknowns," Kelsey said. "Just what is the cattle supply going to be?"

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Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com


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