Wildfires ravage cattle country, threatening Texas’ agriculture economy

Don Gourd watches hay being loaded onto his trailer at a donation site for livestock feed and ranch supplies for people affected by the Smokehouse Fire in Borger on Friday. Gourd plans to drop off the hay to neighbors. (Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune, Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune)

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The largest wildfire in Texas history has devastated the state’s agriculture, blazing through more than 1 million acres of land in the Panhandle, killing thousands of livestock, destroying crops and gutting infrastructure.

The agriculture industry, a big driver of the state’s economy, was already facing pressures from prolonged and widespread drought that forced ranchers to manage smaller herds, contributing to a decrease in beef production nationally. The series of wildfires in the Panhandle this week is another blow as many ranchers tried to rebuild their herds and operations during the cooler months of the year.

Over 85% of the state’s cattle population is located on ranches in the Panhandle, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture. In 2021, agriculture accounted for 9% of Texas' gross state product, adding $186.1 billion to the state's economy, according to Texas A&M’s Agrilife Extension report.

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While numbers on how many cattle were lost in the fires are unknown, experts say ranchers will face significant economic pressure from the damage.

“Even if you were fortunate to be able to get your animals out fast enough, the economic impact on those affected are big,” said David P. Anderson, a professor of agricultural economics and extension livestock economist with Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension.

The fires have left little food or water for livestock. Some farmers lost everything. Property fences are gone. Hundreds of miles of power lines have burned, leaving no electricity to pump water from wells — which farmers rely on to hydrate their cattle. And it will take years for the land to recover and grow new vegetation for livestock in the area. Feed stores are already seeing many people in need of cattle food.

Wade Maul, 53, had never seen a fire like this one — a massive dark plume with no end.

The owner of Maul Feed and Seed in Pampa said ranchers' hay supply has burned up and lots of people are in desperate need to feed cows and other animals that didn't get injured.

“It’s quite a bit of loss,” Maul said. “Any inventory that [ranchers] had saved up, being hay or grass, has gone. They're gonna have to feed them every bite they get for the next little bit.”

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The store is offering discounts on hay, making free deliveries and taking donations. Maul feels fortunate he doesn’t own any cattle and that his land was not impacted.

On various Facebook groups, community members are sharing details on where to donate hay to farmers whose land was engulfed by flames so they can feed their cattle. Others are offering shelter to their livestock.

Some ranchers are coming as far from San Angelo to help.

Pierson Sparks, 21, woke up early Friday and loaded two wheat round bales, 50 bales of alfalfa, two tons of cow feed, two pot loads of water and $300 worth of vet supplies onto two trucks.

Sparks comes from a rodeo family and owns cows, horses, goats and a donkey.

Pierson Sparks unloads hay at a donation site Friday, March. 1, 2024, in Borger, Texas.

San Angelo resident Pierson Sparks unloads hay Friday at a donation site in Borger for ranchers affected by the Panhandle wildfires. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

“We have a bunch of livestock as well and so this hit close to home knowing that some of these people are losing all their animals,” Sparks said. “We're just trying to reach out because we know if we were in their shoes, we would want the same.”

After loading up the supplies, donated by family and friends, Sparks drove more than 330 miles to Canadian, a town near the border with Oklahoma.

At a Friday press conference in Borger, Gov. Greg Abbott said that people who lost livestock and horses are not eligible to receive FEMA disaster assistance. But he added that the state is providing many grants to help ranchers in the recovery process and is securing a location in each affected county where ranchers can go and get help from Texas Division of Emergency Management staff to apply for those grants.

“We know that the loss of cattle is extraordinary, but it goes beyond that,” Abbott said. “We are looking at the big picture, holistically, ways in which we can assist both the ranchers and the farmers to be able to recover from this.”

The Texas Department of Agriculture is assisting Texan farmers affected by the wildfires through relief funds, which can be used to rebuild fences and cover other expenses related to agricultural disasters and restarting operations. TDA’s Hay Hotline website helps farmers and ranchers in need of hay for their livestock.

Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller estimated that cattle losses are in the thousands, with many more to come. Some farmers might be forced to euthanize cattle due to burned hooves and udders.

“It’s a tough situation,” he said. “Ranchers’ income from crops and livestock is gone. So they'll just have to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and do the best they can.”

The Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension is recommending ranchers to begin inspecting and monitoring cattle that have been displaced by wildfires across the Texas Panhandle for the next several weeks. Some animals may not begin to show signs or symptoms of injuries for days to weeks following the fire.

“A single, immediate evaluation will not be enough, but it is a necessary starting point,” said Jason Smith, an AgriLife Extension beef cattle specialist in Amarillo and associate professor in the Department of Animal Science, in a press release.

The last time cattle inventory was this low was in 1951 at 82.1 million head, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The 2024 inventory was at 87.2 million, an estimate made about a month before the fire.

Arthur Uhl, president of the Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, a trade organization for cattle raisers and landowners, worries about the fires’ impact on the market because they have wiped out pasture land and cattle feed, which will decrease the ranchers’ ability to feed their cows. Female cattle are important for rebuilding and growing herds. Uhl predicts fire-related losses will decrease cattle supply even further.

"Texas is cattle country,” Uhl said. “When you lose what I call a significant part of your cow herd, the supply goes down and prices go up.”

Anderson, the livestock economist, said it will take years for Texas ranchers to recover but the wildfires “probably won't have much effect on overall cattle and beef prices” nationally.

“Even a fire that burns a million acres and is as big and terrible as it is, it is a relatively localized thing if we think about cattle production over the whole United States,” he said.

Anderson pointed out that the cattle lost in the Panhandle is a very small fraction of the overall cattle herd in the U.S.

Disclosure: Facebook, Texas A&M University, the Texas and Southwestern Cattleraisers Association and Texas A&M AgriLife have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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