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Drought Puts Texas Ranchers, And Cattle, At Risk

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Drought Puts Texas Ranchers, And Cattle, At Risk

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Drought Puts Texas Ranchers, And Cattle, At Risk

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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People on the East Coast are hunkering down to prepare for Hurricane Irene this weekend. But in Texas, months of drought and record temperatures have people praying for rain.

Ms. BARBARA LIGHT: Oh, precious God, oh hallelujah, we need rain. I lift the animals, the cattle, the sheep, the goats, oh hallelujah, the wild animals brought to you. The trees are wilting. The Johnson grass is not even growing, Lord. And...

GREENE: Barbara Light was one of a small group that gathered to pray last night beside the courthouse in Llano, Texas about 75 miles or so northwest of Austin.


This summer has been the hottest and driest on record in the state. The economic damage is estimated at $5.2 billion and counting.

GREENE: Lakes and rivers are drying up. NPR's John Burnett will tell us about the fate of wildlife in just a moment. First, NPR's Wade Goodwyn takes us out into cattle country.

(Soundbite of mooing)

WADE GOODWYN: This is the sound of drought.

(Soundbite of mooing)

GOODWYN: Many of the cattle at livestock auction here in Emory in East Texas look pitiful. They're standing in 107 degree heat - that's in the shade - ribs showing and stressed out. It's been like this for the last nine weeks - no rain. Although these cows were bred for the heat, they weren't bred for this. They look and sound absolutely baked.

(Soundbite of mooing)

GOODWYN: If this were a normal year, an August cattle auction in Emory would see maybe 100 to 200 head. But because of the drought, there's more than 700 head today. And that's down from the more than a thousand head being sold here every Tuesday for much of this month, because the sad truth is East Texas is starting to run out of stock to sell.

Unidentified Man (Auctioneer): (Unintelligible)...

GOODWYN: Inside the auction room, buyers in jeans and cowboy hats from Michigan and Wisconsin, Tennessee and Alabama raise their fingers in front of their chests to bid. One cow, one calf, one bull after another, until late into the night the Lone Star State is emptying itself of its cattle.

Mr. STANLEY AUSTIN (Rancher): We've had that place there in our family for 75 years, I guess, and it's never been without water. It's been without water now since about the 15th of June.

GOODWYN: Stanley Austin is a rancher and a commission order buyer, which means he buys livestock for farmers and feed yards. He travels throughout Texas, going to seven livestock sales each week. Austin says that this drought is going to alter these rural economies forever.

Mr. AUSTIN: It will change. It will change Texas. A lot of these smaller livestock auctions, you know, they may have to close their doors due to the lack of cattle.

GOODWYN: Farming and ranching in Texas has become mostly an older man's occupation. One look around the auction room confirms that. This generation gap is going to be a drought effect multiplier.

Mr. AUSTIN: My neighbor, he's an older gentlemen, be in his early 70s, he's been working on his cow herd for probably 50 years. He has 250 mama cows. He's out of water. He sold all of his cows last week. And he told me, he said, you know, I'm 70-something years old, probably just retire.

GOODWYN: Three-point-four million acres have burned in 19,000 fires in Texas over the last six months. There is charred land everywhere.

Inside the livestock auction cafe, farmer C.W. Boen is telling everyone how he almost lost his house on Monday. He was off his property when he got a call on his cell.

Mr. C.W. BOEN (Farmer): And my neighbor was screaming into the phone that my house was on fire. I lost my religion and drove like a maniac to get to my house and found out that some of my neighbors and friends had stopped and fought the fire and saved my house.

GOODWYN: It is so dry, the blistering sun magnified through the end of a broken Coke bottle or a beer bottle can start a fire.

(Soundbite of door closing)

GOODWYN: And as sad as the cattle can look, the horses for sale can look even more pathetic.

Unidentified Man: Mare right there (unintelligible)...

GOODWYN: The vast majority are not working horses - they're pets and there's no place to slaughter a horse anymore. So for 20, 25, 30 dollars...

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)...

GOODWYN: Last week, a mare and her foal were just given away at this auction. Watching the long parade of goats, horses and cattle hour after hour, it's clear that something terrible and perhaps permanent is happening here.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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