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Drought in West Texas and Panhandle makes growing feed grain a challenge

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The drought could drive up the price of beef. One agronomist explains why, and what farmers might do to adapt.

In the Panhandle and West Texas, long periods without rainfall are putting strain on farmers and ranchers. Those regions have faced one of the driest 10-month periods in the last 75 years. And it’s having an effect on grain crops and could even drive up the price of beef.

Jourdan Bell, an agronomist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, tells Texas Standard that compared to the 2011 drought, farmers might not be able to compensate for drought through irrigation this time. Read the transcript of the interview with Bell below or listen in the audio player above to learn more about why, and what farmers can do to prepare for and possibly offset the negative effects of the drought.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about the severity of current drought compared with the last extreme drought the state experienced about a decade ago.

Jourdan Bell: Even though the drought of 2011 and 2012 is still considered more than a decade ago, it’s definitely on everyone’s minds. And in the last year, as we have progressed into extreme drought conditions, people really are very worried about the impact, and, you know, are we going to see conditions as extreme as that drought?

What did that last drought mean for agriculture, and what are farmers and others in the industry watching for now?

When we look at the last drought, of course, not only we have below-average rainfall; we were looking at a two-year period where we had four inches and seven inches of rain in each year. So, 4 inches of rain in 2011 on average and about 7 inches in 2012. That, coupled with the limited rainfall, was extreme heat and high winds. So that really drove crop stress.

Now, at that time, many producers had higher well capacities, so they were able to overcome the limitations of rainfall. But as we move into our current drought, our groundwater supply has declined even further. So as we look at an extended forecast without rainfall and the fact that we are currently in one of the driest periods over a 10 month period in the last 75 years, we might not be able to compensate for the lack of rainfall with irrigation, as we did 10 years ago.

An increase in wildfires has also affected agriculture in some parts of the state, right?

Definitely. So we focus on the impact to the row-crop farmer. But across the region, the bulk of our acreage is in native rangeland, and so we are looking at very dry conditions that are very susceptible to wildfire.

Now, fortunately, last summer we had a really wet period where we had a concentration of rainfall over a three-month period and that allowed for some really good growth on our rangelands. But that also created a lot of fodder for these fires. So extreme conditions.

How could all this affect food prices?

When we talk about crop production in the Texas High Plains, we grow a lot of grains. But it is important to keep in mind that these are feed grains and these are grains that are going into the livestock industry as well as forages. And so if we have a drought and we have limited feed grain and limited forage production, that is going to drive up the price of the grain and the forage in addition to just what we are seeing in a global economy right now.

So as the price of feed goes up, that is going to impact the price of beef. Now, as a whole, we like to think about the global market regulating itself. But because we are growing feed grains, we could see further impacts to the price of beef probably.

Is there anything farmers can do to prepare or offset the negative effects of this drought?

We do have irrigated production in the high plains, and irrigation provides farmers an opportunity to stabilize production. So under irrigated conditions, producers are deciding how to allocate their irrigated acreage and even looking at cropping options. But again, we no longer have the well capacities that we had 10 years ago due to a declining groundwater supply. So it still is a very tough decision.

And then on our dry-land acreage, farmers really are dependent on the weather to get a crop established, although they do consider drought-tolerant options such as grain, sorghum and cotton.
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