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Wildfires Ravage Cattle Country, Threatening Texas’ Agriculture Economy

By Alejandra Martinez

The largest wildfire in Texas history has devastated the state’s agriculture, blazing through more than 1 million acres of land in the Panhandle, killing thousands of livestock, destroying crops and gutting infrastructure.

The agriculture industry, a big driver of the state’s economy, was already facing pressures from prolonged and widespread drought that forced ranchers to manage smaller herds, contributing to a decrease in beef production nationally. The series of wildfires in the Panhandle this week is another blow as many ranchers tried to rebuild their herds and operations during the cooler months of the year.

Over 85% of the state’s cattle population is located on ranches in the Panhandle, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture. In 2021, agriculture accounted for 9% of Texas' gross state product, adding $186.1 billion to the state's economy, according to Texas A&M’s Agrilife Extension report.

“Even if you were fortunate to be able to get your animals out fast enough, the economic impact on those affected are big,” said David P. Anderson, a professor of agricultural economics and extension livestock economist with Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension.

The fires have left little food or water for livestock. Some farmers lost everything. Property fences are gone. Hundreds of miles of power lines have burned, leaving no electricity to pump water from wells — which farmers rely on to hydrate their cattle. And it will take years for the land to recover and grow new vegetation for livestock in the area. Feed stores are already seeing many people in need of cattle food.

Wade Maul, 53, had never seen a fire like this one — a massive dark plume with no end.

The owner of Maul Feed and Seed in Pampa said ranchers' hay supply has burned up and lots of people are in desperate need to feed cows and other animals that didn't get injured.

Arthur Uhl, president of the Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, a trade organization for cattle raisers and landowners, worries about the fires’ impact on the market because they have wiped out pasture land and cattle feed, which will decrease the ranchers’ ability to feed their cows. Female cattle are important for rebuilding and growing herds. Uhl predicts fire-related losses will decrease cattle supply even further.

"Texas is cattle country,” Uhl said. “When you lose what I call a significant part of your cow herd, the supply goes down and prices go up.”

Anderson, the livestock economist, said it will take years for Texas ranchers to recover but the wildfires “probably won't have much effect on overall cattle and beef prices” nationally.

“Even a fire that burns a million acres and is as big and terrible as it is, it is a relatively localized thing if we think about cattle production over the whole United States,” he said.

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