Texas ranchers struggle to rebuild cattle herds

Reported by: Rebecca Rivers
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Updated: 3/12/2014 8:25 am
Texas has been the long-time leader in beef production for the U.S. Those numbers have dwindled though after years of drought. But prices have set records this year topping out at $1.50 per pound.
Despite cattle prices being at an all time high, cattle numbers are the lowest the U.S. has seen since 1951. And ranchers like the Hams in Garza County said that it will be at least a three year process to rebuild their herds.

"I have spent a good majority of my life on this ranch and I've been helping my grandfather build this operation back up after the drought and the fires," Austin Ham said.
"Four years is not all of it. I mean, it has just kept going on and on. They're very destructive and it lasts a long time," Jack Ham said. "It comes out of your pocket."

Garza County rancher Jack Ham said that this is the worst drought he has seen in his lifetime. But the drought was only the beginning. A wildfire burned much of his ranch three years ago, causing them to rebuild fence along with cattle numbers.

"I've been ranching practically all my life, so it's about all I've ever known," Jack said. "The fire came in April of 2011. Trucks came and they did all they could but nobody could stop it, really."

That's when Jack's grandson, seventh generation rancher Austin Ham decided to help. He has been working ever since to build their herd back up. He said that buying smart is the key.

"We had to cut our numbers, we had to cut it down to 24 cattle," Austin said. "And now we're building back up, but with the cattle prices that has been a little bit of a trick. So I've just been buying really whatever is a good deal. I'm going to keep all of my good heifers because we're in the process of trying to rebuild so any decent heifer that I have, I'm going to try to hang on to."

Even after efforts to rebuild and a wetter winter, Ham Ranch is still operating at just a quarter of capacity.

"On a good year, I'd say we can run around 400 head with rotating where we're at now, and during this we're running 110 head right now," Austin said. "With the replacement cow price, we're just trying to stock back up wisely without spending way too much on the cattle that we have."

"You just do the best you can to plan for it, but you really don't too much. We've had a lot of good years, and so you just kind of build up the good years and tough out the ones that are not so good," Jack said.

And toughing it out is just what the Hams are doing. Despite the hardships, they both said that there is nothing they'd rather do.

"I think we're going to be in this for a while, people restocking and the cattle numbers low, so really I think it has been a good learning experience. Nothing has been too easy, so I've really had to learn fast," Austin said.
"I think there will always be a need for beef and wool and what the ranch land produces. I think there is a lot of hope for it," Jack said. "I'm really glad to see Austin interested in it, and he is a fast learner, so he's going to do alright."

Texas remains our nation's leading state in total cattle numbers, but Nebraska recently took the lead in feeder cattle populations.
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