Drought gripped Southern Plains in 2011

Jan 6, 2012
by DTN

Cracked earth, dust, crops that failed under pivot irrigation, water disputes and extensive culling of livestock were just some of the effects of this year’s drought in the Southern Plains states, centering in Texas.

Dry conditions that began in 2010 slowly extended in 2011.

For much of West Texas, drought conditions are nothing new, but it was hard to find anyone in 2011 who recalled a worse drought. Amarillo, TX, generally averages 20 inches of precipitation annually. Through mid-August, the city registered 2.5 inches. By late December, that had bumped up to 6 inches, reflecting a minor fall reprieve.

More than 40 percent of Texas remains in “exceptional” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The monitor shows 74 percent of Kansas, 87 percent of Oklahoma and 100 percent of Texas are still in some phase of drought. The forecast for this region through the next six months is still leaning toward belownormal precipitation with drought conditions to persist, according to DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson. Much of the Southern Plains, including the Texas Panhandle, remained relatively dry until a major blizzard hit the region last week.

Economists at Texas A&M estimated in late summer the drought is the most expensive in the state’s history with about $5.2 billion in agricultural losses. Officials in Kansas and Oklahoma also each estimated about $2 billion in agricultural losses for each of those states.

Livestock economists had estimated Texas lost about 450,000 head of cattle but now have raised those figures to 600,000. Texas began the year with slightly more than 5 million beef cows, but will have lost roughly 12 percent of that total. Not all went to packing plants. In fact, many of those animals were moved to pastures in other states or feedlots. In some circumstances, major feeders were stocking cows with hopes of putting them back out into ranches.

David Anderson, an economist at Texas A&M, expects the herd decline to be the biggest one-year drop on record, in keeping with 2011 being the driest year on record.

“And that, even though it is a big decline, it is not the end of the cattle industry in the state. A decline of this magnitude will leave us with over 4 million beef cows, smaller than we were, but still large.”

In an interview last summer, Anderson said the state’s cattle industry hit a point in July in which culling became a necessity for almost everyone.

“I think it’s very common, when we have a drought, we reach that critical point for

everyone about the same time and we get a big run of cattle, and that’s certainly what we’ve had here,” he said.

The challenge long-term is the recovery of the herd. Auction markets that saw an explosion of cow and light-weight calf sales in late summer will see fewer calves going to market in 2012.

“I think we’re going to have some very difficult times for our auction markets,” Anderson said. “Just the volume of animals, we’re going to have a hard time.”

Jerod McDaniel, a young farmer near Texhoma, OK, was among those surprised to see corn fail under center pivot. But zero moisture, constant 100-plus F days and high winds acted like a blow dryer on crops, even those under irrigation.

McDaniel had an irrigated field break under the stress even though he cut his seed plantings by 5,000 an acre. He had irrigated the soil early in spring to build a water profile and had planted early and irrigated often. The 120 acres he lost were irrigated with a comparable amount of water to two other fields under pivot that were sharing a pump on 237 acres total. Those fields are doing fine. He shut off the pump on the lost field in early August.

Overall, McDaniel said, recently, his yields and income were better than expected despite the one lost field. The Texas Panhandle also has seen some recent showers and snow, though largely minimal given the needs of the soil for recharging. McDaniel said farmers are trying to figure out next year’s crop prospects given that a La Nina weather pattern persists.

“A lot of guys are still figuring out what to do,” Mc- Daniel said. “I think a lot of them were shell-shocked last year with the corn burning up and there’s a lot of talk of more people going to cotton. People are kind of jumping on that bandwagon. I’m going to do more milo and do away with wheat acres, and probably plant more corn.”

McDaniel said he plans to plant at a lower per-acre population, but expand the corn acreage.

The Southern Plains wasn’t the only U.S. area to experience drought in 2011. In a six-week time period from July through mid-August, blistering hot and dry conditions in the Midwest withered crops, according to DTN’s Anderson. This development received the moniker “flash drought” from Jim Angel, Illinois state climatologist.

The resulting effect on U.S. corn production was significant: Projected at 13.7 billion bushels at the February USDA Ag Outlook Conference, production slipped almost 10 percent to an October estimate of 12.4 billion bushels. Corn yields also suffered, declining by almost 8 percent from the February projection of about 162 bushels per acre (trendline yield) to measured figures in October of 148 bushels per acre.

This second-straight year of drought damage means that corn supplies at the start of 2012 will be just like they were at the start of 2011, extremely tight both in the U.S. and globally. — Chris Clayton, DTN