Cattle farmers feel the pinch

Published 12:46 am Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Alabama cattle farmers have felt reverberations of the current economic decline just as much as other industries. As people choose to not eat dinner in restaurants and cut other food costs, the price of cattle has decreased.

Things may be looking up for Alabama in the near future, although it may take cattle farmers time before they see prices increase.

“Alabama is way down on its numbers,” said Reid Blossom, industry relations and youth director for Alabama Cattlemen’s Association. “This is due to the drought of the last four years and the decline in the farmer and rancher population. But, the forecast for the Alabama cattlemen is very positive.”

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Nearly 100 percent of the members of the Cattlemen’s Association own family farms, but only about half of the cattle farms in Alabama are members of the association. Alabama is nationally ranked 16 for number of beef cows, and 25 for total number of cattle and cows.

Local cattlemen Harrell Watts, owner of Simmentals of Alabama, has been in the business for more than 40 years and witnessed the trials and tribulations of the industry.

“People being out of work has tended to affect the beef business,” said Watts. “People are still eating beef, but it’s hamburgers instead of steak.”

Each cow Watts sold last year brought him $100 more in profits than this year. “People in agriculture who raise and produce beef don’t set their prices such as in the automobile industry,” Watts said. “The market determines the price we get. It’s a supply and demand situation.”

Watts is a fourth generation cattleman in Sardis. His land spans 2,500 rented and owned acres, which he shares with his two sons who grow peanuts, cotton and some wheat.

But cattle is Watts’s domain. With 80 purebred Simmental cows and 225 commercial cows, Watts stays busy every day, rarely vacationing. “Just when I get out of town, someone will say you’ve got a cow in the road,” Watts said.

Despite the difficulty and commitment, Watts never imaged any other career and plans to continue tending to his cattle as long as his body is able. If prices of beef continue to decline, Watts will reconsider how long he will continue farming.

“It’ll make you scratch your head,” if he stays with the industry. “I’m not going to have an expensive hobby,” Watts said.

He is concerned for the future of the agriculture industry because many farmers are in their late 50s.

“Raising a herd of cattle is a very hard way to make a living out of just cows,” Watts said. “The margin of profit is so small. There is just not enough incentive to get people to go into agriculture and then it takes a tremendous investment.”