September 1, 2006
By Bobby Horecka
If there's a bright side to the drought's death grip on Texas this year, Jason Nedbalek says, it's that it claimed his cotton before he sank too much of his cash in the crop.
Most of it, anyway. In mid-July, Nedbalek said he and his family still had 180 acres left of the huge crop they set to seed this spring just west of Corpus Christi.
He wasn't alone, according to Texas Cooperative Extension Service economists.
Estimated Texas drought losses this year are $4.1 billion for the first seven months of 2006. That's nearly double the previous biggest loss of $2.1 billion set in 1998, and economists agree this year equates historically to the multi-year dry spell of the 1950s.
"And we're not through with it," said Extension specialist Travis Miller.
While a few rains brought a brief respite, most agree the moisture is simply too little, too late.
"Only about four inches of rain have been received since mid-October (of 2005)," said District Extension Director Jose Pena from Ulvalde, where farmers and ranchers usually enjoy more than 19 inches of rain in the same time frame.
"The last 305 days have been, by far, the driest period in over 100 years of records."
More than $1 billion of the current loss comes from cotton, the state's No. 1 cash crop. In Nedbalaek's home county of San Patricio, 160,000 of the 190,000 cotton acres failed. But theirs' was only a smidgen of the overall Texas loss.
Of the 6.4 million acres planted across the Lone Star State, about 2.2 million acresmost of it dryland cotton that depends on the rainwas abandoned because of drought.
"Most of it never even broke the surface," Nedbalek said of his area. "There just wasn't any moisture."
The 22-county area surrounding Lubbockoften called the world's largest cotton patchlikely will lose some 1 million acres of cotton to drought, said Randy Boman, Texas Cooperative Extension agronomist in Lubbock.
And cotton isn't the only crop crippled by drought.
Corn, sorghum and soybeans across the state are rated in poor to very poor condition, meaning few acres were even harvested this year. Corn is forecast down at 26 percent this year, while peanuts and sorghum are expected down 40 percent.
Much of the Texas soybean crop, like many other poorly producing crops this year, was cut and baled for cattle feed, the Extension Service reports. "The need for feed was so great and the costs of harvesting are so high, it simply made more sense to cut the crop and bale it up," Miller said.
Wheat growers also took a massive blow in 2006, harvesting just 35 million bushelsthe lowest since 1971from the sparse 1.4 million acres that survived the dry, warm winter. That was the smallest acreage harvested in Texas since 1925, Extension reports.
And cattlemen took one of the worst hits of all, estimated at $1.6 billion so far this year. Ranchers in the nation's leading cattle-producing state sold 200,000 more head at this time this year than last because they can't afford to feed them, and drought knocked out nearly 80 percent of the nation's hay crop that was supposed to carry them through the winter, Extension reports say.
Texas cattle operations will remember 2006 for years, said Extension economist Carl Anderson.
"Three fourths of the land in Texas is too dry for much grazing or hay that is harvestable," he said. "To compensate, ranchers are selling off breeding stock as culls, some of which they spent years developing. The reduction in herd size will curtail beef supplies for years. And the lack of adequate nutrition will mean a smaller calf crop next year."
As hay becomes increasingly rare, the price per bale has skyrocketed. Plus, record oil prices pushed transportation costs through the roof, making out-of-state hay shipments a luxury many can't afford much longer.
According to figures compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank, agricultural lenders saw fewer loan repayments and much greater demand for loan extensions and renewals than they did a year ago.
All the while, government leaders balked at drought disaster assistance. Although green-lighting a new insurance program for cattlemen last month that allows coverage of pasture and hay crops for the first time ever, immediate drought disaster relief as part of federal spending bills has been shunned in Washington.
Back home, Nedbalek says he can only count his blessings. With most of his acreage lost early in the season, he got to avoid the worrisome hurricane season for a change this year. "For our part of Texas, it's never a good prospect as you move through hurricane season with a crop in the field," he said.
Given the high price of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide applicationsnot to mention harvest costsplanting is one of the cheapest things he can do in the cotton patch, Nedbalek said. And crop insurance fairly well covered those costs.
The zero yields won't help his historic averages when it comes to insuring the cropland next year, but given the alternatives, Nedbalek said it could have been a lot worse.
"You hear the old timers say that no one gets into a drought in a hurry, so I don't expect we'll bounce right out of it in a hurry either," he said. "It's got to give at some point."