Historically tough times -- that’s how some livestock experts are summing up the 2011 Southwest livestock industry. One of the worst droughts on record has forced many livestock producers to cull herds, turn to out-of-state forage sources, and in many cases scramble for adequate water supplies just to keep their herds alive.

And in spite of rain in late December and January in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, the forecast is calling for extended dry conditions and a long road to recovery, even if substantial rainfall comes this summer season.

“The drought is the last in a series of events that have hurt the industry,” says Dr. Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension Livestock Marketing Specialist. “The timing of the drought couldn’t have been worse. But we didn’t get into this predicament overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it quickly either.”

Peel says he expects recovery to take 4 to 5 years before herds can be significantly reestablished, and says a more patient approach will be necessary before the industry can experience expansion and return to pre-drought conditions. But he says some positive improvement could happen as early as later this year and next year depending on a number of developments, including substantial rainfall.

“It is not just a question of adding back beef cows. There are not enough females to support repopulation in one year. Ranchers won't run out of females, but price will get high enough to encourage producers to wait to buy them. And one of the greatest challenges we face will be redeveloping forage acreage and inventories. This is not going to happen overnight,” he adds. “Producers should consider a more patient recovery strategy of rebuilding cow herds over a two- to four-year period. This may be beneficial to promote optimal recovery and healing of pastures. It also will fit cattle market conditions better.”

Early estimates indicate Texas may have lost as much as 20 percent of its beef cattle as a result of last year’s drought, and Peel says Oklahoma losses could run that high and possibly more counting yearlings and stocker cows.    

“As an industry we have painted ourselves into a corner,” says Texas AgriLife Extension agriculture economist Stan Bevers. “We are battered and bruised by a terrible drought and most livestock producers have reacted as you would expect, selling off cows or moving them—often great distances—to greener pastures, and buying out-of-state hay and forage.”