Drought, market changes hurting cattle ranchers

OKEECHOBEE — The first four months of 2020 have been some of the driest on record in South Florida. By the end of March, the U.S. Drought Monitor listed not only South Florida but nearly the entire state as having moderate drought conditions.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
The U.S. Drought Monitor is jointly produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Map courtesy of NDMC.

That lack of rain is hurting cattle ranchers who are already having to contend with a volatile market in the wake of COVID-19.

“The drought is drastically affecting ranches,” said Matt Pearce, president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association. “I have talked to other ranchers that are experiencing drought conditions. Some are having to sell cattle early and at a much lighter weight, resulting in a lower return on investment. Our ranch, Pearce Cattle Company, operates in five counties in Florida that are affected by the drought conditions. We have had to hire a contractor at the Hendry County ranch to bring in a track hoe to dig new water holes where there is no power for wells and no surface water for the cattle to drink. We have also had to monitor and service the solar water wells that we have that are the only source of drinking water at another ranch.”

The lake level is also low at the moment, which intensifies the drought’s effects on the surrounding counties. Lake levels affect subsoil moisture as far away as 50 miles.

“Some ranches don’t have power or may not be able to install solar wells so they are electing to haul water to their cattle,” continued Mr. Pearce. “In these hot spring days, cattle will consume from twenty to twenty-five gallons of water per day.”

Lake Okeechobee News/Katrina Elsken
OKEECHOBEE – Cattle sales have shown ups and down since this photo was taken at the Okeechobee Livestock Market in early March. The market is now limiting the arena to buyers only and enforcing social distancing and mask recommendations.

At the April 16 Okeechobee County Commission meeting, Lauren Butler from the Okeechobee County Extension Office explained in detail how the COVID-19 pandemic is hurting ranchers.

“The beef cattle market is going through some challenging times and it is going to get worse,” she said.

“Most of the processors that we utilize from Florida are out west, and we do that because we are a cow-calf operation state. That means our operations are basically momma cows and they have calves every year, and we wean them to about seven to nine months, and we ship them out west, mainly because there is better grass and grain and forages out there. So that is where they are harvested and processed.

“Some of the plants have started shutting down because of the coronavirus,” Mrs. Butler reported. “Either they have to sanitize the locations or they need to keep the social distancing, so that is really slowing down their processes. And some have to shut down completely. There are some really big processors that are impacting our meat production right now.”

“Another issue,” continued Mrs. Butler, “going from that restaurant-based eating to grocery stores, cuts like rib eyes, New York Strips and sirloins are now having to be utilized in the grocery stores and people don’t know how to prepare cuts, so that is going to change the prices on some of these items.”

She went on to say that the National Beef Association recently estimated that American ranchers are facing losses of $13.6 billion due to the pandemic.

“It’s going to be a rough go for our cattlemen in Okeechobee,” Mrs. Butler added. “Cattlemen are seeing a loss of about $111 per head. The number of animals going through the market is down 47 percent from last year. Contracts to ship cows in the summer are also down 40 percent.”

South Florida received its first significant rainfall of the year April 18 when a line of thunderstorms passed through the area around midday. More storms rolled through the state again on April 20.

“At this time I haven’t heard of any ranches having to move their cattle due to these drought conditions,” Mr. Pearce said. “That is because they are able to get drinking water to them at this time and there is still some standing forage or hay available. If it progresses and the grass does not grow into the late spring and early summer, then ranchers will be forced to move cattle as grass and hay becomes unavailable. These drought conditions have a longer-lasting effect on the ranchers’ cow herds. With drought stress comes lighter weaning weights and less revenues, lower pregnancy rates for next year and higher cattle death loss.”

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