As farmers in Texas and other bone-dry areas sell cattle because they can't grow hay or afford to buy feed, Bicker has been buying animals for his farm in Illinois. He has 25 cows and hopes to have 35 by next year.

“You're seeing a lot of people get out of the cattle industry just because of the (drought). ... It's a chance for us to expand,” Bicker said.

Cattle experts in areas not affected by drought say they're seeing a lot of farmers like Bicker take advantage of rising beef prices and cattle sales in dry areas to expand their businesses. Beef prices have risen because of strong export demand from Asia and a relatively low supply in the U.S.

And, even with farmers like Bicker adding cows, experts say it won't be enough to offset the losses from the drought and ranchers cutting animals over the past five years because of rising land and feed costs. Iowa State University economist Shane Ellis said he didn't expect the total number of cattle to increase in the U.S. for at least another four years.

While the beef industry had already been shrinking, the pace accelerated this year when ranchers in Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and other dry spots thinned their herds or sold off their cattle altogether because they couldn't grow hay and buying it and other feed was too expensive. The U.S. has about 31 million beef cattle, down 5.6 percent from 2006, the Department of Agriculture said this summer.


Many cattle are being sold at stockyards like the one just outside Joplin, Mo. The Joplin Regional Stockyards sits in the middle of a big ranching area that's been dry this summer. Most of its buyers this year haven't been from the area on the Oklahoma border, spokesman John Harmon said.