Saturday, November 26, 2011

Dry cut grass: the end of ranchers and the Comanche

As they say: “Mares eat oats, and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy”.

But mostly “hay is for horses”. “Hey” being an acceptable alternative to “hello” in portions of the Southern United States, but not when shouted across a room to get someones attention: “Hey John! Come over here”.

Now that we are past our faux-grammatical interlude, we discuss the animal feed shortage in Texas.

Manny Fernandex, New York Times (via Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette)1 November 2011

In a typical year, hay can be a kind of agricultural afterthought, a humdrum staple of country life that is as plentiful as it is affordable. But the historic drought that has devastated much of Texas has transformed these simple bales of dried grass into some of the most sought-after goods in the state. The worst one-year drought in Texas history has produced a statewide hay shortage that has more than doubled the price of large round and small square bales, forcing many ranchers to sell or even abandon all of their cattle and horses because they cannot afford to feed them.

The owner of Master Made Feeds outside Dallas has been paying a 5 percent finder's fee to anyone who can help him locate hay. One man used his tractor to bale the hay growing on a highway median one recent afternoon in South Texas, providing him with a free though unlawful supply. Much of the hay that people have been buying lately is not Texas hay - it comes from Oklahoma, Louisiana, Nebraska and other states, adding transportation costs to already stiff prices. One rancher in Bronte, Tex., sends a driver about 600 miles once a week to and from Oklahoma to load up on hay, spending $600 per trip in fuel and driver costs alone…

Some believe that state officials have failed to do enough.

About 4,400 people have signed online petitions on calling for Mr. Perry to use the National Guard or state resources to bring hay to Texas.

There are a number of odd historical connections that can be connected to the lack of animal feed.  The most obvious is that of the Comanche population collapse in the 19th century. This collapse came about from a combination of factors.  There was a drought that began in 1845 that is essentially the very tail end of what is known as the little ice age.  In addition, their very success as a plains empire caused them to over-expand beyond the long term carrying capacity of the land.  Their horse herds, the primary signifier of wealth in their mobile completely nomadic culture, over grazed the grasslands that one of their primary sources of food, the buffalo, also survived on.  Since they did not store hay in any meaningful way for the winter, the choke point was at wintering grounds where uneaten grasses could still be obtained by the herds.

Slaves and horses were the central trade items for the Comanche. The thriving horse business was the basis for the Comanche empire's prosperity, but it also caused its demise. The huge horse herds raised by the Comanche were competing for food with other species, which reduced the bison population.

Eventually, there were too many Indians and too little food. The ecological foundation for the Comanche lifestyle collapsed. When the Comanche were drawn into conflict with U.S. Army in the 1860s, only a fraction of the previously large nation remained.  From Helsinki University Bulletin, 4th Quarter 2009.

We can also connect the Texan’s problems less directly to our discussion of the early agricultural revolution in England that helped promote the excavation and increased use of coal for heating and made the increased supplies of coal available for driving the steam engines: which were developed to ease production (flooding) issues with coal mining.  We discussed this earlier revolution at It will be worse than you think.

The linkage here is in the energy cost of fodder for animals.  I think a lot of people realize that using high value animal feed has an energy cost attached to it.  But I don’t think people realize how much hay it takes to feed a cow.

Stretching Hay Supplies to Help Get Through the Winter
Warren Gill,  Cattle Today, Archive 1999.

A cow can eat 25 to 30 pounds of hay a day and waste a couple of more pounds. This adds up to 27 to 32 pounds per day per cow. Allow about half this amount for weanling calves and about three‑quarters for yearlings. Plan to feed until April 1. If feeding hay from November 1 until April 1, this is five months! This could easily total 4,000 to 4,800 pounds, or 2 to 2.4 tons, of hay fed per cow. Estimate hay available. Large round bales often do not weigh as much as producers think. It is typical for so ­called thousand pound bales to weigh eight hundred pounds or less. Plus, bales stored outside on the ground may easily lose 20 to 30 percent. Even covered bales can lose 10 to 15 percent, if a portion of the bales are in contact with the ground. If storage conditions are not ideal and bale weights are suspect, adjust to obtain more realistic estimates. Example with 10 cows: Allow 4,000 lbs. per cow or 40,000 total lb. Bales weighed 925 lb. in June, but lost 15 percent in storage, and now weigh 761 lb. Divide 40,000 by 761 to see that it may take 52 to 53 bales to feed 10 cows.
In terms of cows/cattle per acre, we will switch temporarily to the more efficient longhorn cattle:
Yes longhorns are different. They will eat more low quality browse then other breeds, therefore allowing about 20% more Longhorns on the same pasture as other breeds. Your local soil conservation district representative can give local grazing suggestions. This all depends on what part of the country you live in and how well your field is maintained and how much supplemental feed you are willing to give. For instance, in parts of Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky where there is 40-50 inches of rainfall each year and strong soil, you could figure 4-6 acres per cow per year without much supplemental feed. However, if you live in Utah or Arizona, it would be drastically more. Some places in Utah figure 640 acres per cow per year.
All of this goes a long way toward explaining why historically the herding of large animals such as cows and horses was done on relatively dry grasslands where the herds could be moved around with ease.   Otherwise you are either going to have to bring in additional feed for the animals, or if you are in wetter areas, you are going replace valuable fertile acreage with cows. What allows for “in-place” facilities is “harvesting” within the nearby area with short fossil-fuel driven hauls of feed.  Presumably if we had sailboats, and inexpensive labor, we could we could move the feed longer distances and still have it be economical.

Everyone needs food.  Although some of the big Agricultural giants maybe at the point where they are getting some monopolistic returns, most of the business is very low margin with a lot of competitors.  What makes the low margins work is that you turn those many small profit margin items so quickly that it builds up to a substantial return at the end of the year.
But what keeps the margin low is that there is a plentiful supply to meet market demand.  This low margin – abundance of supply is obvious from the fact that the Texans cannot afford to bring in dried grass (hay) to feed their animals.  One hiccup, the cost of dry grass, makes the system unworkable:  something the Comanche might have been able to relate to.


Anne said...

A major issue, even regarding hay, is soil compaction. At 4 psi there is damage to soil structure enough that it effects crops. (A quad is 4-5 psi) A pickup is about 50 psi.. a cow 40-ish psi.. tractors are higher (70+). Just 1 pass does most of the damage and repeated passes just add a little more.

It takes 4 passes to cut and bale our fields. (Cut, rake, bale, collect) Average for us is 3 cuttings+ annually.

What's fluff got to do with it..

Soil compaction destroys loft, the pockets/ voids in soil that trap water and air. This reduces water retention, drainage, root growth, seed germination, etc. It is a building problem that drought prone areas really feel.

There are more issues.. but yes, you are right that the current system is in a predicament, especially with large scale operations.

dennis said...

Add the high price of wheat and all the country has a hay shortage. $200.00 a ton in farm country.

russell1200 said...

Anne, I have an Aunt who has old farming property near Lexington VA.

They used to lease out some of the land as pasturage, but the cows just tore it up too badly: particularly the streambed that passed through the edge of the property.

There really is no free ride.

russell1200 said...


Sorry, I forgot to reply.

Your point is well taken. I presume (possibly incorrectly) that it is all an indication of how tight the margins are at the moment in agriculture, and that we have the potential for a very big upward price movement:

The type of price movement that gets talked about in relation to fuel prices a lot or ag products as they relate to the fuel inputs. But the ag products have their own potential ugly time bombs.