Tuesday, April 12, 2011

US Drought Affecting Farmers in the Southwest

Wheat and cattle supplies are under threat from drought.

Fierce Drought Hurts Farmers In The Southwest
A scorching drought in much of the Southwest is hurting farmers across several states and potentially crimping supplies of crops and cattle.

In Texas, where the past six months has been the driest such period on record since 1967, more than half of the state is parched by extreme drought, according to the Drought Monitor, a compendium of government and academic estimates.

New Mexico, too, is drying out, with almost 75% of the state in a severe drought, the monitor shows. In Oklahoma, the period between January and March was the driest since 1921, including the 1930s Dust Bowl years, said the state's associate climatologist, Greg McManus.

Parts of the southern U.S. have battled drought on and off since 2006, but this year is shaping up to be particularly bad, because of an exceptionally dry winter and spring, when the region usually receives more rain.

The drought is hitting the Southwest at a time of rising commodity prices that have attracted the attention of policy makers in the U.S. and elsewhere. Because of the sizable agricultural industry in the Southwest, a decline in production could exacerbate an already tight supply situation.

Forecasts call for less-than-average rains in Texas and New Mexico in the next three months, and at least for the next month in Oklahoma, according to climatologists in those states. In response, at some of the country's most productive farms and ranches, farmers are destroying unsalvageable wheat crops and selling cows earlier than usual.

Bill Hyman, a cattle rancher in Gonzales County, Texas, about 70 miles south of Austin, said he auctioned off some of his animals earlier this year. With scant grass on the fields, he is feeding supplemental hay to the rest of his herd, but is keeping other expenses down to a minimum.

"We're not buying tractors; we're not buying equipment; we're not buying anything," said Mr. Hyman, who is also executive director of Texas' Independent Cattlemen's Association.

The U.S. Agriculture Department said 66% of wheat fields in Texas and 60% of those in Oklahoma were in poor to very poor condition as of Sunday. The two states accounted for 17% of the nation's production last year.

Much of the nation's winter wheat crop -- which is planted in the fall and harvested in early summer -- is grown on the Southern Plains. Because of the drought there, 36% of the U.S. winter wheat crop is in poor to very poor condition, compared to just 6% this time last year.

In a March report, the U.S. government said it expected farmers to devote 8% more acres to planting all types of wheat than last year. Wheat from other states could compensate for the lower-than-average yields in the south, but heavy rains in some areas, including North Dakota, have delayed the spring planting, said Kim Anderson, a crop marketing specialist with Oklahoma State University.

With wheat prices high, it's also possible that countries in the southern hemisphere such as Australia and Argentina will plant more wheat, he added.

Until recently, this growing season promised to be a profitable one for farmers, as the budding world economy raised demand for food.

For many farmers, it's not just the immediate harvest that is in danger. Terry McAlister, a farmer in Wichita County, Texas, 160 miles northwest of Dallas, said he decided not to spread fertilizer or prepare his fields for such summer crops as cotton and grain sorghum. "We're not going to be able to plant anything until we get rain," he said.

Craig Sanders, a farmer near Boise City in the Oklahoma panhandle, is more optimistic. Although he's expecting his wheat crop to start turning brown any day, he's going ahead with summer planting and hoping for rain.

"I've seen it happening in this country," he said. "It'll turn around and get wet and raise a hell of a crop."

The drought is also likely to further shrink herd sizes, which are already down some 500,000 beef cows from last year, according to USDA data.

"When it comes to enjoying a steak or hamburger, what happens with the drought in Texas eventually affects everybody," said David Anderson, a livestock economist at Texas AgriLife. The state is the biggest producer of beef in the country.

Source: CME News for Tomorrow
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