Ted Cruz and Ronny Jackson push legislation to help ranchers who lost livestock in Panhandle wildfires

Cattle stand in the burn scar from the Smokehouse Creek fire March 3, 2024, in Hemphill County. (Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune, Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune)

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LUBBOCK — U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson, both Republicans, are pushing legislation offering additional financial aid to ranchers who lost an excessive amount of unborn livestock in a disaster. It could help those in the Texas Panhandle trying to recover from devastating wildfires that killed more than 15,000 head of cattle, including pregnant cows.

The bill aims to enhance the Livestock Indemnity Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program was first introduced in the 2018 Farm Bill and pays livestock producers for excess deaths from severe weather, disease, or attacks by certain other animals. These payments are determined by the Secretary of Agriculture and typically equal to 75% of the average market price for the animal.

But the program doesn’t cover the death of unborn livestock. This has created another financial setback for Panhandle ranchers, who are trying to recoup their losses after the region was engulfed by wildfires in February and March. The largest of the fires was the Smokehouse Creek fire — which became the largest in state history after burning more than 1 million acres in the rural region.

“Current federal law fails to compensate producers for unborn calves,” said Allison Rivera, executive director of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “This legislation would change that.”

The proposed legislation would add an additional payment rate for unborn livestock to what is already in place with the Livestock Indemnity Program. The payment amount will be capped at 85% of the market value for the lowest weight class of the animal. The amount will also be determined based on the type of livestock and the average number of babies the animal typically gives birth to.

Jackson said the current program will help livestock producers.

“Their recovery has been set back several years due to the limitations on the program’s ability to compensate for unborn livestock losses,” Jackson said.

According to a report released by a Texas House Committee tasked with investigating the fires, cattle losses are estimated to be $27 million. In Hemphill County, which suffered much of the damage, 7,000 cows out of 23,000 in the county were killed. Another 15 to 20% were likely to be put down as a result of extensive injuries.

“This will give Texas cattle producers the relief they need to build back their herds and restore this pillar of Texas agriculture,” Cruz said.

Help toward recovery is still needed in the Texas Panhandle. In the report, the committee notes that pastures will not be suitable for grazing for another three to five years.

“As Texas farmers and ranchers continue working to recover from devastating wildfires, it is critical to provide as much assistance and flexibility as possible to help them get back on their feet,” said Russell Boening, president of the Texas Farm Bureau.

The committee determined the wildfires were sparked by poorly maintained power equipment. Since 2006, five of the largest wildfires in Texas history have burned nearly 2.7 million acres in the Panhandle, according to data from the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Disclosure: Texas Farm Bureau has been a financial supporter 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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