FROMBERG — They stacked the flatbed high with hay bales and loaded their gear boxes with chokers and chains in hopes of finding some Texas oil drilling equipment to haul back to Montana.
Driver Billy Percifield gave one final crank on each load strap, throwing his body weight onto the ratchet bar until his face reddened and the veins in his forehead resembled fault lines on a topographical map. The 1,400 miles from farmer Howdy Hildebrand’s hay pasture to the heart of the Texas drought is an odyssey the men have come to know well.
“Up until about a week ago, I was getting about six phone calls a day,” Hildebrand said. “I’ve got guys calling us wanting us to haul round bales,” which normally wouldn’t be hauled more than a few miles because of the way they hang off the sides of the trailer.
But these aren’t normal times for Texas, where extreme drought has left livestock little to eat. Some ranchers are buying bales at a cost of $110 to $150 a ton, hoping to keep their herds intact until it rains. Others are rolling into livestock auction yards to sell severely underweight animals. Others are shipping their cattle out of state, as far north as Montana.
“We got one ranch in Abilene that since the first of the year has had three-tenths of an inch of rain,” said Pete Bonds, of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. “That’s been the difference. Even in a drought it usually rains some.”
On Monday, Bonds was carrying out his own drought measures. His ranch in Saginaw, Texas, is getting rid of its old cows and first-calf heifers, which usually aren’t the most productive animals. And he was getting rid of his calves.
The old, the young and their children, the animals least likely to survive the worst Texas drought in at least 60 years, are flooding the beef market with lightweight sales. The purging has pushed down cattle prices in the short term. But the nation’s cattle inventory was so small before the drought that ranchers don’t expect the discounts to last.
By mid-October when Montana cattle begin entering the system, the expectation is that prices will be surging again. And later, as Texas ranchers begin rebuilding their drought-depleted stock, prices should again rise as a result, Bonds said.
Bonds said he’s also heard of Texas ranchers shipping cattle as far north as Montana to pasture, though he considers that a risky practice. Texas cattle aren’t bred for the Montana cold, and also give birth in January during the most bitter month of the Montana winter.
Hildebrand said he’s about to pull his sale ads from Texas markets. He’s now backed up three weeks on orders and he also has customers closer to home to serve.
This was a banner hay year in Montana because of record spring rains, though some riverfront hayfields were destroyed by flooding along the Milk and Missouri rivers. Most of that hay is round-baled, Hildebrand said, which makes it nearly impossible to send to Texas or Oklahoma as anything other than an oversize truck load. Few want to haul an oversized hay load that far, he said.
However Texas and Oklahoma have both waived their oversized load restrictions for hay haulers. It’s the states in the middle of the trip with which haulers have to contend.