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10-14-2009 @ 19:49:38
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Drought could cost Texas agriculture losses
By Betsy Blaney, Associated Press writer
LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) In more than four decades of farming, South Plains cotton producer Rickey Bearden says he's never seen an early growing season like this one.
In the past month, the world's largest contiguous cotton patch has endured blast furnace-like conditions as unseasonably high temperatures and strong winds have sucked moisture from soil and whipped plants with blowing sand.
All of Bearden's dryland acres are a total loss, just a month after they were planted.
"I've been here a long time and I seen it blow, but not like this," he said.
Across Texas, the nation's leading producer of cotton and cattle, heat and drought conditions combined with skyrocketing input costs could lead to record losses in agriculture this year.
The tally for all crops and livestock, which won't be figured until later in the growing season, could top the largest single-year loss of $4.1 billion, which was set in 2006.
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"It's a whole different scenario than we've ever seen as far as the potential loss," said Travis Miller, Texas AgriLife Extension Service drought specialist. "We've lost a whole lot of money because there's a whole lot more gone into those crops."
Last week, much of the state was in moderate, severe or extreme drought, according to the most recent map from the U.S. Drought Monitor. A year earlier, the entire state showed no drought.
May was drier than normal and June has been even drier, said state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon of Texas A&M University.
"If it stays dry a couple more weeks we'll see a lot more in extreme" drought, he said. The 90-day outlook could spell some relief: Normal rainfall and temperatures are forecast, Nielsen-Gammon said.
Last year, the Lubbock area did not record a 100-degree day; already this year there have been about a half-dozen days above the century mark.
The only areas not feeling a lack of rain lie east of Interstate 35, which runs through the middle of the state, Miller said.
No matter where farmers and ranchers are, the cost to grow crops or raise livestock is higher this year because of energy costs for pumping, the high price of fertilizer made from natural gas and diesel prices that are well above $4 a gallon. Crop insurance payments do not cover losses from these costs, officials said.
If the dire projections pan out, it would be a turnaround from last year when Texas agriculture set a production record, surpassing $100 billion in its economic impact to the state.
Cotton producers in southern Texas have already lost nearly their entire crop. Those in the western part of the state held out hope last month when rain brought much-needed moisture as planting began.
"This thing came upon us like a vengeance," Miller said.
As many as 500,000 acres of dryland cotton have already been lost on the South Plains because of the heat and windy conditions that are robbing the soil of as much as an inch of moisture a day, said Shawn Wade, spokesman for the Plains Cotton Growers, which serves a 41-county region. Bearden, who watched winds reach 80 mph on a recent weekend, said even his irrigated cotton is in jeopardy because blowing sand is damaging plants.
The acreage loss for both dryland and irrigated cotton could reach a million acres on the South Plains, Wade said.
"But most of that will probably be lost before we get to July the Fourth," he said. "It'll be cotton that just never came up or was blown."
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