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Texas Cattle Ranchers Whipsawed Between Drought And Deluge

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Cattle stand in floodwaters at 44 Farms in Cameron, Texas. The water demolished fences and ruined crops planted as feed.

The drought finally broke for Texas ranchers late last year. The range and pasturelands on which cattle graze began to recover. Then came the spring. In Cameron, about 140 miles northwest of Houston, the rain began falling at the start of May — and didn't stop all month.

"People don't give water enough credit for how much damage it can do," James Burks says. He's general manager of 44 Farms, a cattle ranch bounded by a tributary of the Brazos called the Little River. On Memorial Day, the Little River crested nearly 40 feet above flood stage.

The waters demolished fences and ruined crops planted as feed for the cattle. Still, Burks and his men had been watching the river closely. They were able to get their herd to higher ground before the worst of the flood hit.

Other ranchers weren't as lucky. At the Liberty Bell Ranch, roughly 50 miles northeast of Houston, about 500 head of cattle were trapped by the rising waters of the Trinity River.

"It was decided by the cattle owner that we would just try to drive 'em out," Liberty County Sheriff Bobby Rader says.

"Water was over the levee. It was washing out the levee. It was really, really swift waters. The water was deep in many places, up to 20 foot deep that the cows had to swim through on one of the routes that we took."

Most of the animals did reach safety, but several lost their footing and drowned.

Flooding can have another nasty side effect for cattle. Standing water is a perfect breeding ground for insects.

"The flies become a real issue, and then with flies comes transmission of disease, primarily pinkeye," says Bob McClaren, owner of 44 Farms. "And if one [cow or bull] gets pinkeye, flies get in their eyes and then they land on another one. So it's easily transmitted."

McClaren has to keep a close watch on his cows and bulls: untreated, pinkeye can destroy an animal's sight.

Flooding has taken a toll on other parts of Texas agriculture, particularly along the Gulf Coast. Cotton farmers have seen their crops ruined. The rain has been so heavy this spring that many weren't able to plant at all. But for many ranchers, the wet weather ultimately works in their favor.

"I expect as soon as the waters drain off, we're going to have the greatest grass and forage and hay yield of all time," says John Robinson, an economist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

Ordinarily, Texas is home to about 15 percent of the entire U.S. supply of beef cattle. The drought forced the state's ranchers to sell off roughly a million animals they couldn't afford to feed. That sent beef prices soaring at grocery stores all over the country in recent years. If the deluge helps pastures recover this summer, ranchers will have an easier time rebuilding their herds. Eventually, that will bring beef prices back down.

"We can manage through the mud and the rain," McClaren says. "It's when you don't have any moisture at all that it gets to be real dire and a bigger concern. So, we're blessed to have the moisture, and we're not complaining about that."

That's not to say McClaren isn't concerned. The last time he saw severe flooding was in 2007. The drought began not long after the waters went down. The Cameron rancher is hoping history isn't about to repeat itself.

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