Drought affects 75 percent of the US
As the drought continues to expand across the United States, with record temperatures scorching crops and preventing grass growth, many livestock and crop producers are left with more questions than answers. County, state and national government officials, with the USDA in the lead, are doing what they can to provide relief in these devastated areas, but it may be years before producers can recover.
The National Climatic Data Center reports, “The ongoing drought has reached levels not seen in more than five decades.”
At this point, 75 percent of the U.S. is suffering from some degree of drought, with more than 55 percent in a moderate drought or worse. This is the largest percentage since December 1956.
The drought now stretches across nearly 1,300 counties in the U.S. and is affecting thousands of producers in many states. The effects are devastating. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., more than two-thirds of the topsoil in Wyoming is too dry for normal plant growth or seed germination.
In a time when the U.S. cow herd is already at its lowest point in several decades, the USDA is projecting American beef production to fall by one billion pounds this year compared to 2011, and the U.S. cattle inventory is expected to continue its downhill cycle.
Options for cattle
These effects are already being seen at cattle auctions, like Torrington Livestock Market, where 17,000 head of cattle were marketed in June 2012, compared to 3,300 head in 2011. Ranchers who typically sell yearlings in the fall are selling them now, as feed resources dwindle. Yearlings that are sold by video, usually for late August to September delivery, have earlier delivery dates this year. Many ranchers hope to hold on to their remaining feed supplies so they can maintain their cowherd.
Michael Schmitt, one of the owners of the Torrington Livestock Market, expects higher cattle sales to continue. He anticipates the number of cattle in the state of Wyoming could be reduced by a third if there is prolonged drought.
Moving to grass
As grass and forage continues to dry up, some producers are considering moving their cattle to northern states where grazing land is still mostly in good to excellent condition. However, moving cattle out of state can be costly and available grazing leases in those states can be limited.
Wyoming Ag Department Deputy Director Doug Miyamoto said producers need help locating feed in a tight market and are hoping public land entities will give producers some flexibility in their grazing leases.
However, the BLM is concerned about the condition of their grazing lands, which are also suffering from the drought. In some areas, BLM officials are worried they may have to move livestock earlier because the riparian areas are in such poor condition. In many cases, these animals have nowhere to go, and officials have no answers for land-stressed producers.
Securing hay supplies
Forage is also a concern. In Wyoming, officials are predicting a hay crop half the size of normal, and maybe as little as one-quarter in some areas. Adding to the problem are several wildfires in the state, which have displaced wildlife. The animals have moved to hay meadows to take another chunk out of what little forage and grazing that is still available.
Extension specialists in Nebraska are encouraging livestock producers to secure hay and forage supplies for the upcoming winter. Kimball County Extension Specialist Aaron Berger said with the probability of a smaller hay crop, many hay producers don’t have enough hay to supply all their customers. Stockman may want to secure winter hay supplies with delivery to be assured they will have adequate supplies for the winter months.
USDA officials are encouraging producers to keep thorough records of losses this year, since the department’s authority to operate the five disaster assistance programs authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill expired September 30, 2011.
Since then, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said more than 1,000 counties nationwide will automatically qualify for disaster assistance if they’re in a severe drought for at least eight weeks or were in extreme drought this growing season. The rate for emergency loans has also been lowered from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent. Nearly $39 million is available under this program, he said.
Current predictions indicate the drought will persist or worsen in most areas through Sept.30.
According to the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, “Dryness and drought have been increasing both in extent and intensity across much of the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, the Corn Belt region, the middle and lower Mississippi Valley and much of the Great Plains. Drought is likely to develop, persist or intensify across these areas.”
However, northern tier states like North Dakota, Minnesota and parts of Michigan are expected to continue to receive moisture that will keep their crops and grazing lands in good to excellent condition.
Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Producers choose early weaning
Many producers are also early weaning calves to cope with this year’s drought. By weaning calves early, producers can decrease the cow’s nutritional requirements. Grazing can also be extended for the dry cows because the calf is no longer grazing, and the cow will consume less grass since she isn’t producing milk.
Some stockmen who have feed resources available are choosing to wean the calves and feed them themselves, while others must sell the calves at a lighter weight.
US corn predictions slip
USDA Chief Economist Joe Glauber reported that this year’s U.S. corn crop is currently rated 38 percent very poor to poor. He added this is the worst July condition of the corn crop since 1988. The amount of corn harvested this fall will have a major impact on the economy. Rising corn prices will influence both food and energy markets.
In Iowa, which is the largest corn producing state, the drought is impacting the corn and soybean crops, with officials predicting less than 40 percent of the crop is now classified as good to excellent.