Posted Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012
BY STEVE CAMPBELL
After watching helplessly as the merciless heat and drought ravaged his vegetable crops by 75 percent last season, Cisco farmer Payton Scott says he won’t fight another losing battle.
“If it burns up, I’ll quit on it,” said Scott, whose 60-acre Scott Farms supplies a wide variety of vegetables to farmers markets, grocery stores and restaurants in Fort Worth.
“If this year is even close to being as bad, it will ruin us,” he said.
He’s not alone. Farmers and ranchers fear that the record Texas drought, which devastated the state’s agricultural industry in 2011, could be kicking up dust for years to come.
Despite this week’s rains, worries about a looming Round Two have farmers rethinking what they plant based on water needs and heat tolerances.
Expect to see more drought-tolerant cotton patches, less corn and fewer thirsty vegetable fields this year, experts say.
The drought will also echo across ranchlands for years to come.
The state cow count dropped by about 700,000 last year to 4.5 million, its lowest since the 1950s, as ranchers liquidated herds or trucked stock to greener pastures in the north, said Eldon White, vice president of the Fort Worth-based Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
Even with more rain, pastures will take one to three years to recover, he said.
“Ranchers won’t build up herds until it rains again,” White said.
The ‘meanest thing’
The drought has shifted the way the historic Four Sixes Ranch operates, said Joe Leathers, general manager. The giant spread, with its headquarters in Guthrie, has moved half its herd to Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota.
“This is the meanest thing that has happened to the cattle industry in my lifetime,” Leathers said. “I don’t know of this many cattle having been moved north to this magnitude since the early 1900s.
“Some people have sold out; some moved their cattle north. I’m not sure anybody knows what the right answer is. Time will only tell who made the right decisions.”
The drought will also affect consumers for years, said Pete Bonds, who owns Bonds Ranch in Saginaw.
“A cow is basically a factory; she’s the one that produces a calf,” Bonds said. “If you have to slaughter that cow, you’ve shut down the factory. There will not be as many calves next year. It’s going to drive meat prices awful high. I think we’ll see higher meat prices next year. It will really affect things in 2013.”
The drought rang up $5.3 billion in agricultural losses in 2011, and that’s a conservative estimate, said Bridget Guerrero, an economic program specialist for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. It’s more than a 25 percent setback for the state’s $20 billion agricultural sector. The previous record was $4.1 billion during the 2006 drought.
The economic hit extends beyond the barns. When the ripple effects on fertilizer dealers, processing plants, grocery stores and other business activities are included, Guerrero said, the loss grows to $8.7 billion.
Hiding and watching
With the U.S. Climate Prediction Center warning last week that La Niña conditions are expected to linger into the spring planting season, farmers are in a holding pattern.
“Everyone is going to hide and watch for a little while,” said Travis Miller, drought specialist for the extension service.
“I just don’t have a grasp on how ugly this thing is going to be,” he said, noting that Texas could lose half its 180,000 acres of rice if low water levels in Central Texas reservoirs force suppliers to curtail irrigation.
While this week’s rains raised levels in some reservoirs, many remain extremely depleted. Lake Travis, in Central Texas, is only about a third full, as is Falcon Lake, southwest of Laredo. Addicks Reservoir, in the Houston area, is less than 2 percent full, according to the Texas Water Development Board.
Sam Rayburn Reservoir, north of Beaumont, is at about 62 percent capacity, while Toledo Bend Reservoir, on the border with Louisiana, is at about 65 percent.
Scott, the Cisco vegetable farmer, said he won’t plant cool-weather crops like lettuce, mustard greens and English peas.
“We just won’t have the variety, which is what attracts people at farmers markets. We’ll concentrate on melons,” which handled the heat better than anything else, he said.
After seeing his production fall by 50 percent, Poolville vegetable farmer Ben Walker punted when it came time to plant a fall garden.
“I said the hell with it. I decided that’s going to be my way of doing things from now on. I expect the same conditions this year. If we have another hot May, I may not put out things like green beans,” said Walker, who also grows peaches, tomatoes, blackberries and asparagus.
Growers in the “Winter Garden” area southwest of San Antonio, who depend on the Edwards Aquifer, are considering reducing the acreage they plant to concentrate their water on smaller areas, said Daniel Leskovar, director of the extension service’s research center in Uvalde.
“They’re not likely to plant as much corn, and some are considering not growing some vegetables,” he said.
In the Panhandle, depleted aquifers have already forced growers to “sacrifice some acreage to save the rest,” said Dana Porter, an irrigation specialist for the extension service in Lubbock.
“I think people are rethinking what they plant,” she said, with some switching center-pivot irrigation systems to half-pivots as water districts impose pumping restrictions.
Still, Miller doesn’t expect a major shakeout among growers.
“They are all powder-burned, but they’re going to plant. That’s what they do,” he said. “They’ll also be loading up on crop insurance. That’s a no-brainer.”
For now, Bonds is piling up the frequent-flier miles as he keeps tabs on 2,000 cattle he has sent to Mexico, Canada and 10 states.
This month, he has made rounds in Oklahoma and Texas before flying to Montana. Last week, he was in Nebraska.
“That’s kind of my business plan — if you spread out enough, it’s going to rain on you somewhere,” he said, noting that with another 2,000 head in Texas, he has economies of scale working on his side.
“Most ranchers don’t have the experience or the luxury of size that I do. If you are a typical producer in Southeast Texas that has 75 cows, you’re screwed,” he said.
If it doesn’t rain in April and May, White, of the cattlemen’s association, expects a further reduction in cattle numbers but not as dramatically as last year.
But at the Four Sixes, Leathers hopes to increase his herd size for whenever the drought breaks.
“That’s our desire. That’s Plan A. Somebody is going to have to have females to restock Texas. When it finally rains, all these folks who had to sell are going to want to replace their cows,” he said.
“My goal is to hold everything together and produce a product that can help ranchers in Texas restock with quality cattle.”
Bonds said the quality has already gone up.
“Everybody has culled their worst producers. If a cow was missing one tooth or had a bad attitude, she went to town and had her head cut off.”
Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981