Drought intensifies in already parched areas of U.S.

The drought has intensified in the most parched areas of the country, with more than a fifth of the contiguous United States experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, according to numbers released Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center.

As lawmakers scrambled Thursday to put together a bill giving disaster relief to ranchers, much of the Great Plains continued to fry under cloudless skies. Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas are experiencing intensifying drought.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s getting worse, but it is, even with some rain in the region,” said climatologist Brian Fuchs in a statement released by the drought center, which is based at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Just three weeks ago, the portion of the lower 48 states receiving those two most serious drought designations stood at 11.6 percent. That area has now doubled, to 22.3 percent. The jump in the past week from 20.6 percent represents an increase of about 32 million acres.

The geographical expanse of the drought has shrunk very slightly, but it remains historically high, with more than three-fifths of the lower 48 experiencing moderate drought or worse. That’s an area that comes close to matching the sprawling drought of 1934 at the worst of the Dust Bowl era.

The new statistics show that the areas that need rain the most aren’t getting it, and there is little moisture on the horizon as the country sizzles through the hottest year on record.

“Any time you have that much heat together with drought, you impact crops worse than if it was just drought,” said Roger Pulwarty, who monitors drought for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Big Drought of 2012 has been tough on farmers, who are watching their crops wither in 100-degree heat. But it has been even more brutal on ranchers. Most crop farmers have insurance to cushion the blow of a bad harvest – and the rise in prices is a windfall for those with something to harvest and sell.

The ranchers, however, have hungry cows and a serious quandary. As grass on rangelands is dying across the country, the price of corn and hay for animal feed is soaring.

With the 2008 farm bill due to expire Sept. 30, congressional leaders are feeling the pressure to pass a new, five-year farm bill before the summer recess begins. After a proposal to provide a one-year extension on current programs met push back from both parties, House GOP leaders decided this week to begin revamping crop insurance and programs to aid the livestock sector.

The House on Thursday raced to pass $383 million in relief that could provide up to $100,000 each for the hardest-hit livestock producers. That bill would still have to pass the Senate and might not become law until some time this fall.

“My priority remains to get a five-year farm bill on the books and put those policies in place, but the most pressing business before us is to provide disaster assistance to those producers impacted by the drought,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) said in a statement.

Ranchers contend that they don’t have the safety nets that their colleagues in the crop sector depend on during hard times. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had a “livestock indemnity program” that provided compensation for livestock deaths due to disaster, but that program expired in September.

Economist James Robb of the Denver-based Livestock Marketing Information Center describes a dismaying scenario for ranchers raising beef cattle in a year without rain. Normally, a rancher can turn a profit of about $180 per cow after factoring in the upfront costs of operations and renting land. This year, that’s going to be more like $80 a cow.

“With 30 million head of beef cattle in the U.S., a loss of over 100 dollars per animal is huge,” Robb said.

One rancher feeling the heat is Bill Bunce, a superintendent of ranching operations at True Ranches, a Wyoming conglomeration of seven ranches, two farms and two feedlots that tend nearly 10,000 head of cattle. After enduring a winter with little snowfall and a dry spring, his land was hit by July wildfires that had spread from Colorado. Some 44,000 acres of grazing land used by his cattle has gone up in flames.

“Whether we lease new ground for cattle or buy enough feed to keep the herd at home, ranchers have to expect that next year’s sales are going to be a wash,” he said from his Casper, Wyo., office.

When rangeland at home starts to dwindle, ranchers’ first option is to relocate the herd to greener pastures. Last year, ranchers in drought-blasted Texas could truck their cattle to grazing lands in different parts of the country.

Bunce says there is nowhere for his cattle to go.

He is planning to relocate 10 percent of his herd to lands in three different states. He has also decided to wean this year’s calves early and send them to the feedlot; their mothers won’t need to eat as much. He is also thinking about slaughtering or selling another 10 to 25 percent of his herd to cut costs.

Sustaining the cattle that ranchers decide to keep comes at a high price. Bunce said the price of corn has gone up 50 percent since last spring; the price of hay in some areas has doubled. The grass and alfalfa hay mix that he buys for his range cattle cost $70 to $100 a ton a few years ago – now it costs about $200. A standard 1,200-pound cow will need 24 pounds of roughage every day to survive.

A map of the drought is increasingly becoming a map of the United States itself. The Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast have largely been spared the worst of the drought, but the Southeast, West and a huge swath of the productive heartland in the Midwest haven’t been as lucky. Indiana, where dryland farmers have seen the massive corn crop shrivel in the fields, has had its third-driest year, and Kentucky the fourth-driest, Pulwarty said. Colorado had its second-driest year on record. Wyoming, where Bunce is based, had its driest.

At the beginning of the spring planting season, the USDA estimated a corn harvest of 166 bushels per acre. Economists estimate that is down to roughly 130 bushels per acre — a 20 percent loss of yield.

As the world’s largest exporter of corn, soybean and wheat, price spikes in the crop sector will ripple through markets around the globe.

The livestock industry has also faced stiff competition for corn from the ethanol industry because of the Environmental Protection Agency’s renewable fuel standard in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The legislation includes a mandate requiring 15 billion gallons of domestic corn ethanol to be blended into the nation’s fuel supply by 2022. The target for this year is 13.2 billion gallons.

But on Monday, a group of 19 livestock producers filed a petition with the EPA requesting that the requirement be reduced to damp down increasing corn prices – a measure that the EPA has the authority to grant in cases of severe environmental or economic hardship.

The consequences of leaving cows hungry are long-lived for ranchers. In stifling heat, bulls don’t have as much energy to mate, and hungry cows are less likely to ovulate. Reproduction rates could be 10 percent lower next year due to the physical stress of surviving the drought, said John Paterson, executive director of producer education at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Cows taken out of the breeding population now and fewer calves born into later generations means a smaller national beef herd, Bunce said.

That’s less meat for consumers — and though prices will rise in the next year or two as the herd shrinks, he says, not all ranchers will stay in business until then.

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