ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – One year ago, families in Eastland County were working to gather hay bales after the devastating Eastland Complex fire. But as drought conditions have stayed steady, livestock owners still face potentially career changing decisions, including selling out of the animal business as the cost of hay prices continue to rise.

Just outside of Anson, Brent Fine walks through his pastures, kicking up dust and anxiously searching for a few remaining green blades of grass.

“They’ve got it cleaned off so good, it’s like you don’t even have anything to tell you the truth,” Fine said.

It’s not unfamiliar to Fine, who said he debated selling out of the Akaushi Wagyu cattle business during the unbearable droughts of 2010 and 2011. However, he stayed in and reaped the benefits. Now, he faces a similar dilemma after two drought-ridden years.

“I mean, you’ve got to make a decision on if you’re in the cow business or the hay business,” explained Fine. “We chose the cow business.” 

Fine usually cuts his own hay but hasn’t had a good crop in nearly two years. Through a lesson he learned a decade ago, Fine proactively bought 500 hay bales in 2021, before the droughts hit in July. He stockpiled nearly 1,000 bales of hay, but because of the drought, he’s had to dip into that supply and is down to about 100 bales left.

“In about 150 days, there’s going to be some hard decisions to be made,” Fine contended. “Maybe load them (livestock) up in the trailer and haul them to the sale, maybe even quit for a while.” 

Like many other livestock owners, Fine told KTAB/KRBC he fears that his supply won’t last through the year if we don’t get significant rainfall within the next few months. But as hay becomes scarcer, it presents a new problem in rising costs across the state, making what was a common commodity and precious commodity.

Literally just last week, somebody said ‘hey, how about I buy a couple,'” said Fine, shrugging. “I can’t do it. I mean, until I’m sitting on more hay, I’m not going to let it go.”

Just in the last two years, Fine said hay bale prices have gone from roughly $50 a bale to upwards of $250 a bale.

“We’ve been having to haul in hay from out of state… We’ve been doing that for about a year,” Jennifer Clark shared.

Clark owns J&J Performance Horses, set up just between Hawley and Impact. She has 19 horses, roughly 20 goats, three cows and one sheep that she cares for and keeps healthy ahead of their riding lessons and kids camps she hosts.

Because local hay prices have gotten so high, Clark said she looked outside the state, bringing in hay from Louisiana and Oklahoma. However, just as prices have risen here, they have in other states, as well, for several reasons. Besides the drought and rising cost to cut hay, she explained that the resale market for bales is causing other hay producers to raise prices even further, knowing others may buy and sell it here locally.

“I’m between a rock and a hard place,” glumly, Clark said. “Do you sell out because everything has gotten so expensive, or do you keep going so the kids don’t lose that experience?” 

It’s a question many livestock owners may face in the coming months, but for Clark, raising these animals is not just another source of income.

“This isn’t just a job for me and my family; it’s a passion,” Clark blustered. “We’ll do what we have to do, but it gets a little harder every time.” 

While the dust continues to get kicked up in Clark’s riding pens and Fine’s pastures, the hope for some good rain is dwindling and creating a bleaker outlook for livestock owners across the Big Country.

“I don’t know how you come out ahead,” added Fine.

Fine said the expectation is for 2024 to be a great year, however, he fears most ranchers won’t be able to make it that far before selling out of their businesses.