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Aug 042011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

It’s official. Texas is suffering its worst one-year drought ever, exacerbated by the hottest July ever recorded in the state, according to statements from the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Texas State Climatologist today.

The combination of the searing heat and relentless drought has dealt a harsh blow to the state’s agricultural enterprises, already on its knees from a lack of rainfall dating back to late 2010, according to the state Agriculture Department.

“This historic drought has depleted water resources, leaving our state’s farmers and ranchers in a state of dire need. The damage to our economy is already measured in billions of dollars and continues to mount,” said Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said.

The Ag Department hasn’t put a number on the losses to livestock and crops, but an economist with the state has said the total could be in the $8 billion range. That would double the previous record for losses of $4.1 billion set in 2006, according  to David Anderson, an economist with Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

With more than 70 percent of the state suffering from “exceptional drought” – the worst level – Texas has already lost most of its hay crop and yet-untallied tons of corn, sorghum and cotton that either failed to get enough rain naturally or were sacrificed by farmers who couldn’t afford huge sums for extensive irrigation.

One agricultural report described the plains regions as looking like “a desert” with other areas not much better off.

“There is not going to be much of anything harvested on dryland fields in the southwest Texas area, the Edwards Plateau, the Rolling Plains and the High Plains… You can’t even tell they planted anything,” Dr. Travis Miller, an AgriLife extension expert and associate department head of the Texas A&M University soil and crop sciences department, told AGFAX.

Livestock losses are building as well across Texas. While some ranchers have sustained their herds with hay and food shipped in from other states, pastures are no longer able to support livestock.

The USDA has rated 94 percent of Texas pastures as in “poor” or “very poor” conditions, prompting many ranchers to sell off breeding stock and younger cattle to trim feed costs. The state Ag Department noted steep increases in cattle being offered for sale at auctions in June.

The farm devastation in Texas will ripple far beyond the Lone Star state, which ranks first among states as a supplier of beef, with about 20 percent of US herds, and also is the nation’s top hay producer. Texas’  hay crop, valued at $1.2 billion, helps feed livestock in many states.

Texas also is the No. 1 cotton producer, supplying half of US needs, and ranks high for corn, sorghum and wheat output.

The losses will be felt in the U.S. and on world markets. The wheat crop, for instance, is anticipated to be only one-third of last year’s.

And extensive cotton losses of at least 1 million acres will likely hike cotton fabric prices, according to the Texas Ag Department.

The calamity has been months in the making, with the drought beginning in the fall of 2010. As the calendar moved into spring, farmers saw their hopes for seasonal rainfall dashed. Summer brought no relief, only higher temperatures that meteorologists say help perpetuate the drought.

Temperatures have been higher than ever around the clock, with cities across the state noting record highs and the record high lows, a temperature creep that many scientists say is a harbinger of climate change.

Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, didn’t mention climate change in his statement today. But he did confirm that the state appears to have just passed the hottest July since record-keeping began in 1885.

The average temperature of 87.2 degrees for July 2011 broke the previous record of 86.5 degrees set in 1998. The June 2011 average temperature of 85.2 was a record for that month and now ranks fifth warmest overall, according to Nielsen-Gammon’s statement.

Successive months of record minimal precipitation have created the ever-worsening drought.

The rainfall in July averaged .72 inches for the state, ranking as the third driest month ever – surpassed only by 1980 and 2000, which both recorded just .69 inch(es) of rain.

“These statistics rank the current drought as the most severe one-year drought ever for Texas,” Nielsen-Gammon explains. “Never before has so little rain been recorded prior to and during the primary growing season for crops, plants and warm-season grasses.”

Among the other rainfall records set this month:

  • Least year-to-date precipitation (6.53 inches compared with an historical average of 16.03 inches
  • Driest consecutive 8, 9 and 10 months on record (with cumulative totals of 7.25 inches 8.35 inches, and 9.17 inches respectively)
  • Driest 12 months ending in July (15.16 inches compared with the  previous record 16.46 inches in 1925).

Texas farmers and producers can get information about federal drought assistance from the state Ag Department drought disaster info packet.

Livestock producers can find emergency hay sources at the Texas Ag hay hotline page.

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