United States experiences worst drought in 50 years
ROBERT BURNS/Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
The fall calving season was in progress in many parts of the state. Despite improved soil-moisture and forage conditions, livestock producers generally remained cautious about rebuilding herds, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service beef personnel.
The Texas agriculture industry again dealt with Mother Nature’s whims, but in 2012 the playing field was much wider. This time, the Corn Belt joined Texas and by mid-year, 65 percent of the lower 48 states had experienced moderate to exceptional drought. Before the year was over, not only had the ag industry battled the worst drought in 50 years, state and national leaders were divided as to how to assist. The year also brought a rally on Capitol Hill, asking Congress to complete the 2012 Farm Bill.
Prior to the countrywide drought, Texas AgriLife Service economists tallied Texas’ losses for 2011. The driest year for the state surpassed $7.62 billion in damages. The year ended with approximately 61.92 percent of Texas and five other states in the South being classified in the extreme to exceptional range on the U.S. Drought Monitor.
While 2011 ended with much-needed rain and the formation of a La Niña weather formation, losses mounted in 2012 when South Texas, including Wilson County, received almost 10 inches of rain during a May storm. Precinct No. 2 -- an area from Poth to Kosciusko and southeast to the county line -- sustained the most damage. The “microburst” storm damaged Pruski Seed and Fertilizer in Kosciusko, as well as other buildings in the area. Corn crops were stripped to the stalk, being “zeroed out” by crop insurance adjusters.
Crops & disease
Farmers and ranchers who planted grass for grazing or hay purposes faced an unusual problem. Texas ranchers were warned that Tifton 85 Bermuda grass could contain prussic acid, also known as cyanide poisoning, and that precautions should be taken. The drought of 2011, followed by abundant rainfall in the spring, made for the perfect setup for this toxin that farmers and ranchers had not seen before. An isolated case in Elgin June 26 cost a rancher 15 of his 18 rodeo calves, when he released the hungry and thirsty cattle into a pasture of Tifton 85.
August brought an increase in the number of human West Nile cases reported in North Texas. The Fort Worth area led the state with 80 percent of the cases. A warm winter, followed by summer rains, was the culprit. By July 27, 111 cases and one death were linked to the West Nile virus.
After a year when Texas pecan producers reaped only half of the state average, the 2012 pecan producers expected a harvest of 65 million pounds. The state’s average is 50-55 million pounds.
Trees continued to make the news, when the Texas A&M Forest Service reported in early September that the central part of Texas, along the I-35 Corridor -- from Fort Worth to San Antonio -- had the highest risk of wildfire. This followed a late September Texas A&M Forest Service report that the 2011 drought had killed 301 million trees in the state. In late November, after saving seeds for five years, officials began the process of replanting Bastrop State Park with 550,000 drought-hardy loblolly pine seedlings, to replace trees lost to a huge 2011 wildfire.
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension personnel reported “one of the driest Octobers in Texas, and essentially no rain at all in November.” Exceptional drought reports continued in parts of West and South Texas and the Panhandle area. These areas of Texas were not alone, as the heartland of the United States continued to battle the drought of 2012, as well.
The severity of the drought was evident when in a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) press release Aug. 15, the U.S. Drought Monitor indicated this year’s drought is affecting:
•63 percent of the nation’s hay
•73 percent of the nation’s cattle acreage
•87 percent of the U.S. corn crop
•85 percent of soybeans.
In response to this USDA report, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack designated 1,792 U.S. counties as disaster areas, 1,670 of them due to the drought.
Responding to the USDA’s updated report, the price of corn increased from $8.25 to $8.49 per bushel, inching ever closer to the $8.50 record high in 2008.
As farmers and ranchers contended with the worst drought in 50 years, all eyes were on actual harvest numbers. The USDA’s Sept. 12 report showed corn production continued to slide, with the lowest production in the United States since 2006. The projected 122.8 bushels per acre was well below the 2011 average of 147.2 bushels. Ending corn stocks were tight, with 647 million bushels, or 21 days of supply available.
A similar trend was found in the grain sorghum crop, with production down 6.3 bushels per acre.
As grain prices inched upwards, cattlemen shipped animals to other locations for grazing. Cattlemen in the Plains and Midwestern states were affected by the drought-like conditions, with more than 54 percent of rangeland and pastures rated very poor to poor condition. The opposite was true for the Gulf and Atlantic Coast states, when officials reported good to excellent conditions in at least 50 percent of the area.
The ag sector soon turned to the government for help. However, disaster assistance in the 2008 Farm Bill expired in October 2011. Vilsack continued to monitor the drought, and made assistance available through emergency haying and grazing on Conservation Reserve Program lands, reducing the interest rate for disaster loans from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent, and other assistance from decades-old USDA programs.
Members of Congress tried to assist, when U.S. House Bill 6228, a one-year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill, was promoted to offer disaster relief. This was short-lived when the bill was withdrawn in early August. A second bill (HB 6223), the Agricultural Disaster Allowance Act of 2012, met the same fate.
Early reports that an El Niño winter pattern was developing over the nation fizzled by September. If the El Niño pattern had developed, the Gulf Coast could have anticipated wetter, cooler weather. Instead, a neutral situation was developing, leading to an equal chance for a wet or dry winter, climatologists said.
But as the drought monitor map indicates, the drought continues for many.
The D3 or extreme conditions expanded in central Oklahoma and along the border with Texas. In central Texas, a new area of D4 or exceptional drought occurred and extreme drought conditions expanded. See drought monitor map (below, left) for more.
As producers prayed for rain, a different storm was brewing on Capitol Hill. Repercussions of “Taxmageddon” -- a one-year $494 billion tax increase slated to affect the U.S. economy, including the expiration of tax policies and the beginning of major tax increases associated with ObamaCare -- loomed, with uncertainty over compromise before the deadlines.
Also during the year, the 2012 Farm Bill was a major issue. See an upcoming issue of the Wilson County News for more on this and other issues making headlines in 2012.