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VEGA, Texas (DTN) -- Everything is bigger in Texas, except Route 66.
Texas is home to only 175 miles of the Mother Road, which stretches across the midsection of the Panhandle. Nonetheless, a traveler can find a row of spray-painted Cadillacs half buried in the Plains. On the west end of the state is also the midpoint of Route 66, noted by a marker across the highway from a small cafe.
Amarillo also is probably the one place along Route 66 where you are guaranteed to find a 72-ounce steak any night of the week -- not that eating a 4 1/2-pound steak at the Big Texan Steak Ranch is necessarily advisable.
There are a few sizeable feedyards along Route 66/Interstate 40, but a traveler might not get a full appreciation of just how much cattle feeding there is in the area. The Texas Panhandle is cattle-feeding country. Roughly 88% of the approximately 2.5 million cattle on feed in Texas at any one time are concentrated in 10 counties within about a 120-mile radius of Amarillo.
While cattle-feeding remains a dominant industry in Texas agriculture, drought has shaved feedlot numbers, dropping them from nearly 3 million head in 2011 to just under 2.5 million head now. Yet, despite perceptions, Texas Panhandle feeders are stocked with roughly the same number of cattle the industry had on feed in the late 1990s.
What has changed is there are more cattle on feed in states such as Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa. "We are kind of seeing a little bit of a shift back north because of ethanol in the Midwest and byproducts such as distillers grain," said Robby Kirkland, who operates a 20,000-head feedlot just outside of Vega.
Kirkland's father is an area farmer who bought a 600-head feedyard in in 1983 and began to enlarge it. Besides the feedyard, the Kirkland family also still has a farm and ranch operation with roughly 10,000 acres. "That is part of our portfolio, so to speak. We originally were farmers."
Despite recent drought, the Texas Panhandle still offers the climate to feed cattle and adequate access to feed. Cattle feeding also developed heavily in the area because that's where meatpackers wanted to locate.
"When the packing industry took roots here, that's where the cattle kind of came to," said Kirkland, who is 42.
The smaller cattle supply in recent years has caused at least one major packer -- Cargill Meat Solutions -- to close a plant in 2013 and close a feedlot. The lack of feeder cattle nationally has translated into a summer of record high cattle prices.
"Cattle right now are making good money coming out of the feedyard," Kirkland said. "It's been a good, profitable time in the industry and that's because of the lack of supply."
The lack of supply and continuing demand much of this summer meant cattle were pulled forward and moved to the packers, which has put a lid on carcass weights as well. "The biggest thing we are seeing there is the cattle are making so much money that the packer demand is good, so we have been pulling cattle forward a little greener because the packer needs the cattle," Kirkland said.
In recent weeks, the cattle futures have dropped precipitously, taking $15 off the October contract from a $160.70 high at the end of July.