By Elliott Blackburn
LUBBOCK, Texas (Reuters) - A miserable sea of dry brown West Texas grass and charred scrub could cripple ranching operations in the country's top beef-producing state.
"Right now, it's literally day-to-day, and Mother Nature's holding all the cards," said Dennis Braden, general manager of the 130,000-acre Swenson Land and Cattle Co.
In the state where cowboys riding the open range on horseback herding cattle spawned a whole western culture, modern-day ranchers are hurting.
Severe drought and millions of acres of wildfires have delivered a potent one-two punch this year, forcing tough decisions on ranchland across Texas.
The state's livestock industry has lost $1.2 billion under withering conditions, according to the Texas Agrilife Extension Service, part of Texas A&M University.
It's a bitter pill for Braden and the more than 120-year-old ranch located 170 miles west of Fort Worth.
In Texas and other states with large cattle herds, the beef industry chain starts at the ranch. Farmers own a herd of beef cows, each of which gives birth to a calf in a typical year. The mother nurses the calf and the pair graze on grass all summer, fattening up the calf for market. The young calves are eventually weaned from their mothers and sent to feedlots to be fattened on grain for slaughter.
This year, ranchers should be reaping the benefits of high prices, low supplies and high demand for their beef
The demand from for calves from feedlots, where cattle add hundreds of pounds before slaughter, seems insatiable. The Swenson ranch entered this season planning to grow by thousands of cattle over several years.
But he and other calf growers instead spent this spring in a desperate hunt for pastureland and contemplating selling all of their livestock.
His ranch has seen more fire than rain since September. Wildfires roared out of a canyon and went on a 35-mile march across his and neighboring remote ranchland in April, consuming thousands of acres of mesquite and pasture.
Cattle subsisted on dead grass as his cowboys worked to keep the cattle healthy enough to bear new calves.
West Texas did not have the water to irrigate hay, and thousands of acres of drought-ridden wheat fields never produced a crop.
If conditions do not improve by August, he will run out of even low-quality feed for his herds, he said.
"We don't have the grass resources to keep those calves around," Braden said.
Fire alone will not devastate a ranch, and managers may often use controlled burns to improve the range. A good blaze can clear away the tall, dead brush hiding the green grass that helps bulk up the herd.
Emerald fuzz covered scorched patches of Swenson ranch after less than an inch of rain provided the area's first shower in nine months.
Given a good spring storm, the tough, hilly scrub would look like Ireland, Braden said. But the most recent shower was not near enough to break the drought.
Without acres of green, protein-providing grass, cows will struggle for nutrients. The herd will lose interest in breeding and cows will not even provide enough milk to their own calves, bringing the first step of America's beef cycle to a halt.
The outlook for more rain looks grim. The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center forecast below-normal rainfall for Texas over the next month at least.
The cash-green carpet that sprang up from wildfire ash could brown under the Texas sun.
"Couple of days of 40 mile-per-hour winds and 100-degree temperatures and it will go back to buckskin," Braden said. Ranches that could afford it hunted for rare acres of pasture outside the state.
Joe Leathers, manager of the historic 6666 Ranch in Guthrie, about 100 miles east of Lubbock, had moved cattle to New Mexico to keep a prized genetic line alive.
He could not consider liquidating the herd with ranch families and years of breeding programs depending on him, he said.
"If you had to sell your herd off and wait until it rains, you're going to have 75 families out of a job, and a home," Leathers said.
"It sure would be nice if it rained," said David Anderson, a livestock agronomist with the Texas Agrilife service.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)