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Texas Farms and Ranches Done In by Mean Drought

With livestock unfed and livelihoods on the line, owners pray for rain. `It's nothing but dried weeds out there,' a feed-store manager says.

September 03, 2006|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

CANTON, Texas — The effects of a long, stubborn drought are everywhere here: in the parched, wasted fields and the bony cows nosing the dirt for nonexistent grass; in the cracks splitting stone-hard earth and the worried faces of farmers running out of savings, and options.

"It's sad when you see what's going on all around you," said Windy Watkins, a feed-store manager. "This has been the lives of so many for so long, and now it's gone. It's heartbreaking."

Canton, a rural cattle- and sweet-potato-producing area 60 miles east of Dallas, is hardly alone in its misery. From Florida to Arizona and north through the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, drought has wiped out summer crops and forced ranchers to sell cattle they can no longer afford to feed.

Crop and livestock losses have reached a record $4.1 billion in Texas alone this year, nearly double the $2.1-billion mark set in 1998, according to Texas Cooperative Extension economists. The projected loss for rural businesses that provide equipment and services to Texas farmers and ranchers is an additional $3.9 billion. "It's as bad as it gets," said Texas A&M University agronomist Travis Miller.

Last week, federal agriculture officials promised nearly $800 million to ranchers and farmers nationwide, an amount state lawmakers, farm organizations and ranchers called a pittance.

"That's like me spitting out there for the cows to get a drink," said sweet-potato farmer Lamar Bass, shooting a glance at the cracked ground on his Canton farm.

With no prospects for rain, farmers can either call it quits or dig deeper into debt, he said.

"That tractor over yonder?" Bass said, pointing to the left. "Mortgaged. That other tractor? Mortgaged. That truck next to it is mortgaged. Mortgaged, mortgaged, mortgaged.... I tell the banker this is more his than mine."

In a field of wilting vines, Bass digs through the sandy dirt and pulls up a lone sweet potato. "There should be six or eight sweet potatoes with this, and there's just the one," he said. But at least the field is producing something, he added. In a scene repeated across the country, a nearby field is overgrown with dried weeds, the ground too scorched to plant.

"Folks are hanging on, hoping it will rain," Bass said. "A lot of people don't want to admit they're on their last leg."

For cattle ranchers, the drought has meant barren pastures that don't produce the hay or grass that feeds their livestock. "The pastures are all burnt up. There's nothing for the cows to eat," rancher Darwin Douthit said.

Those who can afford it import hay from as far as Iowa or Colorado at $90 a bale, double the usual rate. At those prices, only part of a herd can be fed; the rest are sold, underweight and well before they normally go to market.

"The only thing you can do is sell cows. It's the only option you have," said Douthit, 67. He has sold 40 of his 100 head of cattle, and expects to be down to 25 by the first frost. "I'll sell my cows before I watch them starve."

In many Texas counties, more than twice as many head have been sold this year than last, Miller said.

Van Zandt County Livestock auction barn is doing record business, selling an average 600 head each Saturday, compared with 250 in nondrought years. The line of ranchers waiting to unload trailers of cattle starts early in the morning, and backs up for half a mile.

For auction-house owner Tommy Barton, the boom in business has meant watching friends and neighbors slowly liquidate their life's work. "It's been horrible," he said.

The effect on consumers will probably cut two ways.

"In the short term, beef prices will be lower because all those animals are going to auction, and there's more beef on the market. But in the long term, consumers will see higher beef prices because many of the younger cows that would have been producing more calves, and expanding the market, have been slaughtered," said David Anderson, a livestock economist at Texas A&M.

Not all of the younger cows have been turned into beef, Anderson said. Out-of-state producers are buying cows at auction and moving them to states where grass is still abundant.

But wherever ranchers gather in Texas, the nation's largest cattle-producing state, the conversation is the same. " 'Have you heard where you can get some hay? How much does it cost?' That's what we talk about now," Douthit said.

His wife, Becky, admits to being a poor sounding board. "He doesn't talk about it much to me. I can't take it," she said. "When he told me how much he paid for the hay he bought from Iowa, I nearly choked."

This time of year, most farmers would be preparing the fields for winter grass, but the ground is too hard to plow. "People are losing their ever-living tails," Douthit said.

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