Cattle woes

3/2/2013

Drought exacts costly toll on cattle-related ventures.

Drought exacts costly toll on cattle-related ventures.

The toll of drought on corn and other crops continues to be far-reaching.

Feedlots and meatpacking plants in particular have been feeling the heat of severe drought for years. Soaring grain prices driven by drought mean more expensive livestock feed — so costly that cattle numbers continue to drop as feedlots find it tougher to survive.

Such a trend also means higher prices for consumers as the meat supply shrinks.

One southwest Kansas feedlot operator recently reported his business at 75 percent of capacity, and expects it to be less than half full in the next couple of months.

A good number of feedlot operators have done their best to improvise and achieve profitability by resorting to such changes as growing cattle to a certain weight before selling the animals to others who fatten them further.

Some feedlot owners have streamlined operations by cutting jobs or workers' hours. Others have their businesses up for sale, or have gone out of business.

The negative economic fallout of having fewer cows headed to feedlots also has hit meatpacking plants that employ huge workforces.

Cargill Beef temporarily closed a slaughterhouse in Plainview, Texas, earlier this year, laying off some 2,000 workers. One of four meatpacking plants in the Texas Panhandle, the facility also was among the nation's bigger slaughterhouse operations.

The annual economic loss to the region of that plant closing was estimated at a staggering $1.1 billion. Knowing as much, it's easy to see how such a setback in southwest Kansas would be a crushing blow to the regional economy.

Texas has been hit hardest among the major cattle-producing High Plains states, which also include Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska.

Some of the business from Cargill's Plainview facility at least went to other plants. Cargiill planned to move what business remained to Dodge City, and two other plants in Texas and Colorado.

While the new work would be welcome in those places, concern lingers over how long it will take to rebuild cattle herds — and, in the meantime, how much more damage might be realized in an industry that helps power southwest Kansas.

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