U.S. cattlemen selling off in drought

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WICHITA, Kan. -- Kansas cattleman Ken Grecian sold 20 pairs of cows and calves a few weeks after drought had sucked his pastures dry and no rain was in the forecast. He sold 20 more pairs Friday.

Grecian spent years meticulously breeding his cows to improve the genetics in each generation, but with Kansas in one of the worst droughts seen in decades, he's struggling to find enough grazing to feed 300 cows, plus their calves. He hopes to get by with selling only a quarter of his herd, but there are no guarantees with the drought expected to linger through October.

Other cattlemen throughout the middle and western part of the United States also are selling animals they can't graze or afford to buy feed for. Beef from the animals now flooding livestock auctions will start showing up in grocery stores in November and December, temporarily driving down meat prices. But then prices are expected to rise sharply by January in the wake of dwindling supplies and smaller livestock herds.

The number of cattle in the United States has been dropping for years, but the pace picked up last year when ranchers in Texas, the nation's top beef producer, sold a massive number of animals amid a severe drought in the Southwest.

Farmers in Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas bought some of those cows, however, so nationwide, the loss wasn't as great as it could have been. This year, virtually no one is expanding herds.

"The drought was really bad in the southern Plains last year, but the cattle industry was able nationally to absorb it because it wasn't bad everywhere. This one is much more along the lines of bad everywhere, so the market implications are a lot larger and a lot more players in the industry are impacted by this," said Glynn Tonsor, an agriculture economics professor at Kansas State University.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Friday that the nation's cattle inventory was the smallest since the agency began a July count in 1973. It estimates the size of the nation's herd each January and July. The United States had 97.8 million head as of July 1, 2 percent less than a year ago.

It is likely to take the beef industry years to recover. Cows have a nine-month gestation period, and it can take up to two years after calves are born for them to grow big enough for slaughter.

Grecian, 62, said a local drought forced him to sell nearly 30 percent of his cattle in 2003. It took six years for him to rebuild once the drought ended. He did it by holding onto female calves and not selling them.

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"It is our life, and we invest a lot of emotion and energy and money into developing a cow herd that is genetically what we want," Grecian said. "When we are forced to liquidate, it is not an easy thing to do. It is pretty heart-wrenching sometimes, but is part of the business."

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