Jan. 5, 2012 - The U.S. set a record in 2011 for the most billion-dollar natural disasters. Texas, unfortunately led the way. Even in a year that had the largest tornado outbreak in U.S. history in Alabama, Hurricane Irene and record flooding in the Northeast, the Texas drought, heat and wildfire made Texas the most weather-ravaged state in the country.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) reported that Texas was hit by eight billion-dollar disasters in a year where beef producers sometimes were forced to sell off entire herds and row crop producers had to rely strictly on crop insurance, even as many commodities brought record high prices. As the year progressed without any relief, parched land made combustible by the many acres of dead vegetation went up in smoke during the worst wildfire outbreak in the state's history.
"Agriculture in general is in uncharted waters right now," Texas AgriLife Extension livestock specialist Rick Machen said. "Prices are going up to all-time highs. That's what's different about this drought."
In a year full of irony for Texas farmers and ranchers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that farm profits increased 28 percent this year to $100.9 billion, with crop sales expected to pass the $200 billion mark. That was not the case in Texas, where cotton, peanuts, pecans and most other commodities were hit too hard by the drought for farmers to show much, if any, profit.
Cotton reached its highest price ever in March at $2.197 a pound, but the majority of farmers in Texas either made no cotton or their yields were greatly reduced. Texas farmers planted about 7.1 million acres of cotton in 2011, but losses were at about 50 percent, according to state cotton specialist Gaylon Morgan with Texas AgriLife Extension. The USDA estimates Texas cotton lost nearly $2 billion this year.
"West of IH-35, excluding the Blacklands, there is virtually no dryland cotton," Morgan said. "You might find some isolated spots that got a little rain here or there, but most of it was wiped out. We've lost nearly 2.5 million acres of dryland cotton. For irrigated cotton, they're getting about 50 percent of what they should be getting."
Corn accounted for more than $327 million in agriculture losses in the state with yields down about 30 percent, and acres down 16 percent, according to AgriLife economists. Peanut farmers had their worst year ever. The story was much the same over most of the state, though isolated pockets avoided the worst of the drought. In Nueces County, which had nearly normal rainfall totals, agriculture Extension agent Jeffrey Stapper estimated that agriculture income increased by 11 percent this year.
The Texas beef herd has dwindled by 600,000, or 12 percent, from the beginning of the year, economist David Anderson estimates. He agrees with USDA predictions that beef prices will rise again in the coming year afer an almost 10 percent increase this year.
The telling number to Machen is that 40 percent of the cows being slaughtered are heifers.
"If we're over 33 to 35 percent it means that we're not building our herd inventory," he said. "If the herd doesn't rebuild, at some point we're going to look for a reduction in the infrastructure of the cattle business. It could be one of those events that reshapes the future of the industry."
The drought didn't start on New Year's Day 2011, but has been with us since the fall of 2010. Some parts of the state had zero inches of rainfall during that period. Overall, the state had less rainfall during that eight-month span than any year in history. Much of the state was a tinderbox by this time, and in the spring, it ignited. As of Easter weekend, more than 1,800 firefighters from 35 states were battling wildfires over 1.4 million acres, from the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the Pineywoods to Central Texas, Trans-Pecos and West Texas. Two volunteer firefighters lost their lives battling the blazes.
The worst was yet to come. By Labor Day weekend, fires were again raging over much of the state. From November of 2010 through late September, East Texas suffered through 2,000 separate fires. The timber industry was hit the hardest, losing timber that would have accounted for an estimated $1.6 billion of different forest products. The Bear Creek Fire, the biggest in East Texas history, burned more than 4,000 acres in Cass and Marion County.
Bastrop County, known for its "lost pines," lost more than a million of them during September wildfires. That fire, which affected two subdivision as well as rural and state park property, is expected to be the costliest in Texas history. In all, about 4 million acres of Texas was burned by wildfires in 2011, according to Texas Forest Service (TFS) estimates. Even without the fires, Texas trees were in trouble. The TFS estimates that between 100 million and 500 million trees have been lost to the drought, and that doesn't count the trees lost to wildfires.
The tree losses are spread out over the entire state, TFS Director Tom Boggus said. "In East Texas, on rejuvenated pastures where trees were planted, the seedlings have had anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent mortality," he said last summer. "In the Hill Country, you see a lot more gray than you ever see in July and August. It looks like it should be fall, because a lot of the Ashe junipers -- the cedar trees -- are turning red, and now you're seeing these red hillsides. It's interesting to see how it's going to affect wildlife because the habitat is going to change."
The core of this drought and extreme droughts of the past is the La Nina weather system, which shifts the jet stream north and takes the storms tracking east to west with it. The result is less rainfall and warmer temperatures in Texas and the Southwest. A strong to moderate La Nina influence was present most of this year. State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said in September that the current drought could last several more years and will most likely be around in 2012.
"We broke records everywhere in the state except for a part of North Central Texas and they came pretty close," Nielsen-Gammon said. "East Texas got the amount of rain that West Texas usually gets. West Texas got the amount of rain that Death Valley usually gets."
Aside from praying for rain, agriculture producers are keeping a wary eye on the newest farm bill, which will drastically reduce government spending on agriculture and agriculture research. The government's "Super Committee" failed to develop at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending cuts, including $23 billion from agriculture, leaving people in the agriculture industry wondering what programs will be cut and by how much.
More than $10 billion in spending cuts for agriculture in 2013 is set to be triggered due to the committee's failure. A vote on the bill is not guaranteed until 2013. The hope in Texas is that the drought will be fading into memory by that time. No one wants another year like 2011.