Texas drought threatens cattle ranchers' livelihood

Rancher Cotton Dietrich checks the dry grasslands in Texas.

WEST TEXAS - It's auction day at the West Cattle Barn in central Texas, reports CBS News correspondent Don Teague.

For 74-year-old rancher Cotton Dietrich, this will be his last.

Deitrich is selling off his herd -- all of his cattle -- because the once-fertile grasslands that feed them are gone.

Three-quarters of Texas is in extreme or exceptional drought. Lubbock has had less than an inch of rain this year. Houston has had just over an inch-and-a-half in three months -- about the same as the Sahara desert.

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Wildfires are ravaging the tinder dry landscape, scorching more than two million acres since January. To make matters worse, this is typically the Texas rainy season.

"We should be seeing rainfall, so if we don't get rainfall in the next several months, the impact is going to be devastating," said Victor Murphy, meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

For Dietrich and thousands of ranchers across Texas, the only choice is to sell their herds or go broke trying to feed them.

"After a while you just laugh at it, keep from crying," said Cotton.

The drought in cattle country could actually bring a short-term benefit to consumers. Beef prices have been running at near record highs, but with so many ranchers now forced to sell off their herds, the price of beef is expected to drop.

Already auction prices in Texas have fallen 15 cents from 80 to 65 cents per pound and could continue down through summer.

But with the U.S. cattle population already at a 50-year low -- lower prices won't last.

"We'll be certainly looking at higher beef prices in the future just simply because fewer cows, fewer calves less beef production, so there's going to be less beef in the market for consumers to buy," said Dr. David Anderson, an economist at Texas A&M University.

In the meantime, Cotton Dietrich is already beginning his new career raising a more drought-tolerant herd: sheep.