Texas' farmers and ranchers are coping with their eighth drought in the past 13 years, and this one, while still young, has a chance of slamming producers with their biggest losses ever, officials said.
Texas AgriLife Extension Service experts have estimated that Texas ranchers lost $1.2 billion from November through May because pastures have not greened up and high-priced feed products have been needed longer than normal.
It's still too early to get a good read on the state's crop losses, but the outlook in areas without irrigation is not encouraging.
The extension service, in a report last week, set a $274 million value on Texas' wheat crop, less than half of the five-year average for that commodity.
“It depends a lot on what happens to the West Texas cotton crop,” said Travis Miller, the extension service's associate department head for soil and crop sciences. “If we don't get a break in West Texas, it's likely to be around that (2006) level.”
Curt Mowery, a farmer in Rosharon, said he's “never seen it this dry this early” in 35 years of farming south of Houston.
He could not find the water to irrigate his corn and grain sorghum, and without rain, his rice might not have enough irrigation for a second cutting.
“There are a lot of long faces out there,” Mowery said. “Everybody's feeling the pain.”
The May 17 edition of the U.S. Drought Monitor shows Texas is one of about a dozen states affected by drought but is by far the most seriously affected.
None of the state was drought-free as of last week, and more than 80 percent of Texas exhibited either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions, the two most severe levels.
Almost 48 percent of the state, including large stretches east and west of San Antonio, was at the “exceptional stage,” where widespread crop and pasture losses are expected and water emergencies arise.
Last year at this time, almost 84 percent of Texas was drought-free, and the worst drought any area was experiencing was considered “moderate.”
David Anderson, an extension service livestock economist, said that every day without rainfall, “crop and livestock losses mount.”
Not only are ranchers forced to pay for hay and other supplements when pastures are not available for grazing, they often have to haul in water when stock tanks run dry, Anderson said.
Instead of adding feed costs to the other rising input costs, ranchers often start sending more of their herd to auction when droughts hit.
Rick Machen, a livestock specialist for the extension service in Uvalde, said ranchers started culling herds during droughts in 2008 and 2009 and did not rebuild in 2010. Even more cutbacks have started this year.
While he did not know specifically how much herds in South Texas have been thinned, Machen said “we're down appreciably.”
Frates Seeligson, who ranches in Wilson, Guadalupe and Gonzales counties, said he's selling calves earlier than normal and has cut his herd size by about 50 percent to cope with recent droughts.
“You can't feed your way out of a drought,” Seeligson said. “You'll go bankrupt.”