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Agriculture Today

We are all in this drought together

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Kenneth Dirschke
Texas Farm Bureau
September 28, 2011 | 2,897 views | Post a comment

The prevalence of wildfires in Texas has caused much suffering, loss of property, and a few tragic deaths. Texas lies vulnerable to one of nature’s most ferocious onslaughts in a way that we’ve seen only a few times in our history.

The fires, as fierce and damaging as they are, are really a symptom of a much larger problem -- the epic drought that has gripped the Lone Star State since last year. September 2010 was the month when most of Texas last received any significant amounts of rainfall. For some regions, it’s been longer than that.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains a drought monitor online at http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu. It clearly shows that much of Texas is stained with the deep red of extreme drought or the even-deeper red that reflects the catastrophe of “exceptional” drought. This is the worst level that the scale can convey. Only a few isolated areas show the slightly lighter colors of “abnormally dry” or “moderate drought.” Almost every county in Texas -- 250 out of 254 -- has been declared a disaster area due to drought, wildfire, or both. Most recent droughts we’ve endured began after at least some fall and winter rain. Not this one. It’s equivalent to the watershed 1950s drought in every way except duration.

There is some limited help available from the federal government, but not the disaster relief we’ve often seen for this scale of devastation. Crop insurance will be a major source of income in Texas row crop agriculture this year. Ranchers do not have that safety net. They have been selling off their herds at a record pace due to a lack of feed and water. At least prices have remained reasonably good. Beef prices at the store should not be impacted. In fact, the supply of beef will be higher due to the sell-off. If prices do go up, consumers should be aware that the drought is an excuse, not a reason. Yet for the future, the decline in cattle numbers could mean price increases in the months and years ahead.

The culling of herds has now gone far beyond this year’s calf crop and replacements. Now the mother cows, the genetic core of the herds, are being sold due to a lack of feed and sometimes water. Those cows sold this year will not have calves next year and beyond. This will have long-term effects on beef prices.

Then there’s the economic impact that will be felt far beyond the farm or ranch. Small towns are feeling it now. Farm families who are not producing anything have little need for replacement parts for tractors and implements. Plans for the new pickup, school clothes, a new computer, and much more have been put on hold.

The Texas farmers and ranchers I talk with daily are by nature an optimistic bunch. Surveys have indicated many are considering getting out of the business, but most I’ve visited with are working a plan and planning to survive. The next few months are critical for all of us.

Urban Texans can help. This drought has threatened our water supplies more than any in decades. Plan your water use. Try to use less by cutting back on watering lawns. If you’re planning a new lawn, investigate native grasses or varieties that use less water. Maybe even xeriscape -- with native plants, stone, and gravel -- will work for you. And in the category of little things that are very important, avoid any kind of outdoor fire. For now, park the grill. Even with the parchment-dry landscape, we hear every day of fires that began by a cigarette thoughtlessly tossed from an automobile window. The resulting flames can consume what remains of precious grass for livestock, as well as threaten homes and lives.

In a very real sense, we are all in this drought together. Just ask the 1,500 or so folks who lost their homes in the Bastrop fire. It wouldn’t hurt to pray for rain, either.

Kenneth Dierschke is president of the Texas Farm Bureau.

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