Texas agriculture losses reach $3.6B

July 21, 2009 12:47:40 PM PDT
Drought in Texas has led to an estimated $3.6 billion in crop and livestock losses, and without ample rains, the year's final tally could top the state record set in 2006, Texas agriculture officials say.Crops and rangeland are scorched from lack of rainfall and record triple-digit temperatures throughout parts of Texas - the nation's second-largest agriculture state behind California. Much of the central and southern parts of the state have been in the two most severe stages of drought for months.

Agriculture officials in the state, which leads the nation in cotton and cattle production, estimated Monday that total crop losses attributed to the drought that started in November have reached $2.6 billion. Livestock losses have reached an additional $974 million. And officials have not yet tallied how much ranchers will lose from having fewer cattle to breed or from selling calves earlier than usual because they don't have pasture on which their animals can graze.

It could be two years before a reduced beef supply and higher prices hit the grocery store, said Travis Miller, a drought specialist with the Texas AgriLife Extension. He noted that many cattle being sold at Texas sale barns will end up in states where grazing lands are better.

As far as cotton, U.S. and world supplies left over from previous years are still high, so the amount grown in Texas this year won't influence the price of a T-shirt or blue jeans, said Roger Haldenby, spokesman for the Plains Cotton Growers, which serves a 41-county region of western Texas that is the world's largest contiguous growing patch.

If dry conditions persist, losses could surpass the $4.1 billion in agriculture losses three years ago, the highest amount ever in Texas in a single year. That drought spread across more of the state than this year's, said Carl Anderson, an economist and professor emeritus at Texas AgriLife Extension.

"The last three months of this drought have been so, so severe," Anderson said. "The critical factor here is how soon will we get soaking rains."

Texas agriculture officials said they factored in cattle losses going back through November, when the current drought began. The $3.6 billion in losses came during a span of about nine months; the record losses in 2006 covered 12 months.

It is so dry in some parts of Texas that water for livestock and wildlife is evaporating. According to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor map, released July 14, 55 of Texas' 254 counties are in extreme or exceptional drought; no other part of the nation is that dry.

Extreme drought conditions can lead to major crop and pasture losses; extreme fire danger; and widespread water shortages. Exceptional conditions can lead to widespread crop and pasture losses; an even greater fire risk; and water emergencies, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

"I can't remember it getting so bad so fast because of extreme heat," said Jim McAdams, a fourth-generation rancher in central Texas and past president of the National Cattleman's Beef Association. "This is one of the worst hot spells I've ever been through."

According to Texas AgriLife Extension, range and pasture conditions are poor or fair over more than 85 percent of Texas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture rates a third of Texas' cotton acreage as very poor or poor. Dry conditions indicate a large amount of acreage will likely be abandoned, and a small cotton crop is expected because of lost acreage and low yields.

Texas crops besides cotton are also hurting. More than 40 percent of corn and sorghum were in the poor category. Loss estimates for goats, sheep, honey and horses totaled $105 million.

To deal with the lack of pasture for cattle, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples has asked the USDA to allow ranchers to graze their animals on Conservation Reserve Lands, acreage set aside for conservation purposes. He sent two letters seeking help - one in May and one last week.

"Many of our farmers and ranchers are frustrated today," Staples said Monday. "Frustration won't make it rain. Immediate action by USDA will ease their pain."