Texans try to cope with lingering hangover from record drought

After Texas got hit by a historic drought in 2011 that caused major damage to its agricultural sector, many farmers and ranchers in the state had hoped their dry spell would be over by now.

But although conditions have somewhat improved since then, moderate to exceptional drought is still affecting 64 percent of the state, hurting farmers' crops and animals and biting deeply into their profits. In a big state, it still sprawls. For example, much of Texas' hay, corn, winter wheat and cattle is currently affected by drought, according to a March 18 U.S. Drought Monitor report.

After three years of facing severe water problems, farmers are trying to adapt with changes to what crops they grow, innovative ways to use water more efficiently on their farms and even bioengineered plant varieties that require less water.

David Cleavinger, who farms 4,000 acres of corn, wheat, cotton and more in Wildorado, near Amarillo, said he's seen warmer winters and much less water that he needs to irrigate his crops.

"A lot of our [1,200] wheat acres are dryland wheat, so the wheat crop [last year] was pretty minimal, and this year the wheat crop looks pretty bad," he said. "We haven't had any measurable rain since last September."

For corn, when the temperatures hit over 100 degrees Fahrenheit with 40 mph winds, he added, the heat scorches the crop "because the plant just doesn't transpire enough water up it for it to survive."

Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said higher temperatures in Texas will affect the state in many ways: higher summer energy demand, less water availability because of increased evaporation, and an earlier planting season as the last freeze and frost dates move up.

"I suspect because of the combination of increased water use and climate change, [there] is going to be just a decrease in the amount of irrigated agriculture," he said.

The prolonged drought has had many impacts over the last few years. "It can increase pest costs, we're seeing migration of land from cropping into livestock, we're seeing lower livestock stocking rates, we're seeing more variable yields," said Bruce McCarl, a professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University.

The number of cattle and calves in Texas has declined to 10.9 million this year, from 13.9 million in 2007, according to the Agriculture Department's National Agricultural Statistics Service. The quality of the land that livestock grazes on has also declined sharply in some cases.


"A few years ago, you could count on having ... one animal per 2 acres. In some places they're going to one animal per 4," he said, because "it's drier, you have less grass and less feed to support the animal, and there's also been more variability in the forage yields."

Fears about overdrawing the Ogallala

It all comes down to water for many farmers, and the massive Ogallala Aquifer underneath the Great Plains is at risk of getting depleted because of drought and overuse.

"The Ogallala is a big aquifer and has a lot of water in it, but it's like a big bank account: If you're taking out dollar bills and putting in pennies, there's going to be an end of the road someday no matter how big it is," said C.E. Williams, the general manager of the Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District.

The $1.8 billion Texas dairy industry, centered in the north and central-eastern parts of the state, is dealing with rising costs of feed because the drought has hit grain production.

Joe Osterkamp, the owner of Stonegate Farms in Muleshoe, Texas, and chairman of the Texas Association of Dairymen, is the third or fourth generation of his family to go into farming; his farm milks around 2,800 head a day.

"We're like any other livestock operation; with this drought, it's been tougher to find feed availability and forage to feed the cows," he said. He's had to buy feed substitutes like alfafa, grass hays, cornstalks and even cotton burrs from as far away as California, Wyoming and Montana.

Every milking cow he has eats just over 50 pounds of feed-dry matter every day, so the higher costs add up because of the sheer volume of feed he has to buy every year.

"We're probably spending an extra million dollars a year easily over what we did a few years ago, if not even a little higher than that," he said, doubling the farm's feed costs. He also now has a dairy nutritionist come twice a week to make sure the cows are eating a proper diet of all the "hybrid" ingredients they're munching on now.

Profits disappear along with future farmers

Another headache is trying to keep the cows comfortable during the extreme heat of the summer months. While Texas has always been hot, climate change may help cause more heat waves.

"What it does is [the heat] drives down their consumption levels, so they don't eat as much, and when they don't eat as much, they're not going to produce as much milk," Osterkamp said.

Even a crop synonymous with the South, cotton, which needs less water than other crops, has suffered. The value of upland cotton in Texas was $1.5 billion in 2013, down from $2.39 billion in 2007.

Charles Ring's farm in Sinton near Corpus Christi has gotten some "timely rains" this year but needs more to get back to normal. To help compensate, he's planting more sesame plants, a more drought-tolerant crop.

Last year, the farm's cotton production was off 60 percent. So he increased his crop insurance guarantees to make up for the expected losses, and last year his farm spent an astounding $100,000 on crop insurance premiums. Fuel and fertilizer costs have also risen.

The drought has added to the reluctance of many in the next generation to go into farming; two of his brother's sons have instead gone to work in the oil fields. "The truck driver in the oil field can make 100 grand a year, and we're scrounging and scrimping to keep our head above water," he said.

Big agricultural technology companies have jumped in to try to both help farmers with more drought-tolerant crops and make some money off what they see as a problem more farmers will face in the future.

In 2012, Monsanto contracted with 250 farmers mostly in the Great Plains to test genetically engineered DroughtGard corn, which got an average of 5 more bushels from the new corn from their farm plots.

High-tech corn and smaller grapefruit

"It's targeting a specific function that's helping that plant when it encounters drought stress, utilize water a little bit more efficiently," said John Fietsam, a Monsanto product development manager, who added that it helps the plant maintain protein production even when it's lacking enough water.

"If it's pulling it from the soil profile more slowly, and using it more efficiently, the plant's got more water to grow through that period of stress to help get it through to the next rain."

Even your breakfast juice is affected. The state is one of the nation's top citrus producers, but if that grapefruit you eat from Texas seems a little smaller these days, you can blame the drought.

"If you go into a year with very little rainfall in the wintertime, our trees were not getting ample moisture during that dormant period," said Dennis Holbrook of South Tex Organics, with 500 acres of citrus in Mission, Texas. "So when they started to come out with a crop in the spring, we didn't have as good a bloom, which is where your crop is set from."

If water were more plentiful, his farm would get six irrigations per year, but he expects to be limited to only two this year, which will hurt his citrus crop.

"The tree has its own sensory system, so if it realizes it can't support the amount of fruit that's on the tree right now, it will begin to shed the fruit," he said. "It'll start dropping it, so we go through two cycles normally where we have fruit drop, May and June."

Another problem is that his citrus fruit becomes smaller if it doesn't get enough water. He has to send that grapefruit to a juicing plant, which pays him much less than if the fruit were sold normally.

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