Future Tense

The Megadrought Is Forcing Ranchers to Slaughter Far More Animals

A cow in the foreground looks at the camera while others graze on brown grass behind it.
Cattle graze on dried grass at a ranch in Tomales, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Every week, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service publishes a dense report of statistics and trends that evaluate the nation’s agricultural sector. The figures—spanning from weekly dairy yields in Texas to cotton production costs in Oklahoma—cue the factors that drive price, supply, and demand for crops and livestock.

The scholarly and (at times) soporific economic reports tend to fly under the radar of academic scrutiny. But the anomalous heat waves and so-called megadroughts of this year’s growing season have rankled the Sun Belt and beckoned for attention toward the records. The numbers now suggest that even the most adapted of livestock are being slaughtered at alarming rates due to extreme exhaustion. As local economies bleed because of it, farmers are jockeying to find solutions.

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One of the most important statistics nested in the reports is that of the red meat production in select states and regions, a figure typically recorded in pounds. The relative amount of red meat—which encompasses cattle, sheep, hogs, and lambs—produced by a given region is indicative of the slaughter rate and market interest for the respective sector of livestock. A low cull rate (the frequency at which livestock are exiting a herd due to disease, exhaustion, or an enterprise desire for stronger steers) typically implies that a farm’s operations are stable, with a minimal turnover rate for its livestock population, while a higher rate often suggests that a farm faces internal or external forces that are driving its need to vacate a larger portion of the herd.

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Between June 2020 and June 2021, Texas reported that it had slaughtered (or, by association, culled) an additional 38.2 million pounds of red meat livestock, an annual growth of around 30 percent for the figure. The United States as a whole reeled its net production back by 3 percent over that same time period.

What was worse, 36.4 million of those 38.2 million pounds of red meat were produced between May and June—a single summer month accounting for more than 95 percent of its increase in a year. And while official reports for the subsequent months of July and August remain scattered and in assembly, local ranchers I spoke with suggest that the trend has not ebbed to any noticeable degree.

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Analysts believe that the problem doesn’t stem from the farms or the livestock, but rather the onerous ripples of the heat. In an email to me, Leann Hunting, the animal industry director at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, wrote: “The heat and lack of moisture/rainfall leads to a lack of feed and water, which can make it hard to keep the cattle healthy. … Cattle ranchers have been hauling water to areas where natural water sources have been dried up and have been feeding hay to make up for a lack of forage. … Without that water, heat exposure and exhaustion would cause a lot of harm to the cattle.”

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The average feeder cattle will find ideal living conditions at around 25 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures between 80 and 100 degrees, they begin to undergo rapid exhaustion, and at temperatures above 100, they will die. The average daily high in Phoenix this summer sits at about 105, and the year-over-year rainfall has plummeted from an average 8–12 inches to 4.41 inches, the lowest on record in over 10 years.

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In the past, namely during the climax of the California droughts between 2014 and 2016, ranchers adapted to the heat by selling their cattle to neighboring states like Colorado and Texas, where the heat had begun to ebb. This allowed the national market for cattle to remain afloat, albeit with a regional supply void in the concentrated markets of the Golden State. But now, it is not just the West that is feeling the heat—the entire nation is, and ranchers are fearing it will be difficult to meet expected long-term demand hikes with commensurate supply.

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“Many are facing drought in the North and Northwest as well, which is where most cattle go from here,” says Emmett Sturgill, a co-owner of the Rafter S Cattle Company in Kingman, Arizona. He and his wife raise Black and Red Angus cattle across their roughly 300,000 acres of land.

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“The long-term effect of this will be less cows producing less calves, and demand is increasing steadily around the world, so prices will begin to rise,” he says. “When the dust all settles, we expect 2022 to have much higher prices. It will take years to get the cow herds back to where they were in 2021 when the culling began.”

According to USDA reports, Texas’ population of cattle on feed dropped by 60,000 heads—or roughly 15 percent of its entire supply—over the past year. Nationally, it’s been reduced by around 7 percent. Other states like Colorado have slashed supply by as much as 25.7 percent, portending that the drought-stoked tumult is now plaguing some of the most historically stable producers of livestock in the U.S.

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This population shock is not present in all Southwestern states, however; California and Arizona, for instance, have managed to nearly match their figures for cattle on feed from last year despite mounting cull rates (though the vast majority of the survivors are skinny, sickly, and in critical condition). The rift has pressured meat distributors to battle for suppliers, and for suppliers to slaughter otherwise healthy animals.

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One path through which many ranchers have sought to manage the demand for beef is by turning to lamb and sheep. During quarantine, the demand for these more exotic meats waxed. Correspondingly, ranchers in Texas slaughtered an additional 1.1 million pounds of sheep and lamb, a flooring annual growth rate of 68.3 percent.

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Sheep and lamb are generally considered to be more resistant to heat, and as the drought has continued to plow across the West, ranchers have begun to tap into these supply channels to compensate for the heat waves exhausting their cattle. The haphazard market patch has sufficed demand for red meat thus far, but critics contend that such a rate of slaughter is far too unsustainable to maintain, with entire regional populations calculated to exhaust within as little as one to two years.

Other interim solutions to the decimation have included the employment of new technologies capable of measuring and alerting ranchers of suboptimal farm conditions before they cripple livestock, with some platforms even providing tailored suggestions to the ranchers. In other cases, farms have sought to ebb overgrazing by rotating grazing plots or by placing cattle in the same terrains as sheep and lamb, so as to limit the bulk of grass and volume of water needed to maintain the grounds.

But the solutions have proven to be neither effective nor sustainable. Sheep and lamb populations are finite, newer technologies cannot yet outperform their corporal counterparts, and livestock still require towering bales of hay and grass to be raised responsibly.
Such shortfalls are aiding the ongoing push to modernize the traditionalist climate policies of the South. This time, though, the ripples of extreme heat are not only routing the region’s fauna; they are miring its most foundational economies, exhausting its mammoth farmlands, and flirting with an agricultural crisis. For policymakers, they will prove difficult to ignore.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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