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Agriculture Today

Extreme weather conditions plague the ag industry

Extreme weather conditions plague the ag industry
Stock tanks throughout Texas, like this one in Wilson County, continue to dwindle in the ongoing drought.

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Wilson County News
June 29, 2011
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Although beneficial rains came to South Texas during the early hours of June 22, the timing may be too late for those involved in the ag industry. At a time when farmers should be gathering their crops or cutting hay, the landscape includes fields once green and now barren, the corn crop has either failed or will have low yields, and ranchers are sending their cattle to market.

Some farmers and ranchers are wondering if they are reliving the 2007-09 drought that plagued the region, making that time the driest 23 months on record in the San Antonio area. Estimated Texas agriculture losses then totaled approximately $4 billion.

Relief came in October 2009, with the second-wettest October on record.

What began as a bountiful year for the ag industry in 2010 -- with farmers reaping bountiful harvests -- soon changed to drought-like conditions, due to the development of a La Niña weather pattern. It seemed another major drought had begun.

Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas A&M University professor and Texas state climatologist, wrote in his blog, the “Climate Abyss,” that the period from October 2010 until May 31, 2011, was the “driest eight-month period on record.” This ongoing drought currently is listed at No. 3, behind the droughts of 1918 and 1956.

Early damage reports include:

•$40 million to replace fences in areas of Texas where wildfires consumed more than 3 million acres, according to a June 22 Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers press release.

•A May 10 Loss Assessment Report by Stephen Scavina, Wilson County executive director for the Farm Service Agency, estimated $24 million was lost in cool-season grasses on 6,000 acres in Wilson County comprising 3,000 farms.

In a June 14 Texas crop and weather report by Robert Burns of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service Office, J.D. Folbre, AgriLife Extension agent for Karnes County, reported the county has moved into Stage 4 drought. “Sorghum and cotton crops still have a chance if moderate rainfall is received. The hay crop looks like it will be 60 to 70 percent of normal.”

In this same report, AgriLife reporters for the Wilson County area stated, “crop and pastures continued to deteriorate without rain. ... Cotton was ‘cutting out’ and shedding some squares due to moisture stress. (Cutting out refers to the final stage of plant growth prior to boll opening.) Thousands of acres of corn were being shredded and destroyed as crop-insurance adjusters and growers agreed on claims.”

According to a Texas Top Crops report by the Texas Farm Bureau, Texas ranks No. 1 in the nation for upland cotton production, with 4.5 million bales.

Texas cattle are also ranked No. 1 in the nation, with 13.6 million head for a value of $11.7 billion.

Ranchers have not been exempt from the drought, even with higher commodity prices being paid for their cattle.

Ranchers are cautious to expand herds, said Jose G. Peña of the Texas AgriLIfe Extension Economist-Management, in a Jan. 31 Extension Agricultural Economics press release. Ranchers are contending with high fuel costs, high grain prices, and the lingering dry spell.

Producers continue to thin their herds and auction houses have seen increased cattle sales.

See “Ag Snapshot” for a comparison of two of the local auction barns -- Nixon Livestock Commission and the Atascosa Livestock Exchange -- for more on this.

A.L. “Windy” Miller, a rancher from Atascosa County and secretary of the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas, spoke openly of the issues facing today’s cattlemen on June 20.

Miller said the 2009-10 rainfall brought smiles to the faces of farmers and ranchers, due to the green grass and forage.

Today, producers are facing temperatures in the 100s, no rain, and constant winds, reminiscent of the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s.

Miller has taken cattle to the sale barn, and seen more grown cattle than normal going through the ring. He has culled his herd already and will take a few more.

This is the “nature of the business,” Miller said. As the ranches get into the summer, the conditions get worse.

Small producers and family operations are finding it tough, Miller said.

With little forage, many must consider irrigation or purchasing hay. Irrigation is costly, and hay prices, due to drought here and flooding in other regions, continue to rise. This and increasing fuel costs are affecting hay production and making it costlier to transport hay to where it is needed.

The independent or family operators are not alone in contending with higher prices; those who depend on grain to continue their operation are also faced with higher commodity prices.

For example, grain sorghum was listed at $11.40 per 100 pounds on June 18, double what farmers received a year ago. Corn prices, at $7.05 per bushel, have also doubled, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture Market Recap for June 20.

While the June 22 showers were a welcome sight for many producers, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center lists the drought tendency for the period from June 16 until Sept. 30 as “persistent.” The three-month precipitation outlook for July, August, and September is bleak, too.

As this scenario unfolds, consumers are seeing an increase in food prices. The American farmer receives only 11.6 cents of every dollar spent on food, according to a March 17 Renewable Fuels Association press release. This figure is down from the previous 20 cents per dollar. The culprits -- higher fuel costs and labor used for food processing, packaging, and transportation -- are showing no signs of decreasing.

And the drought continues.

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