Drought Is Changing Face of Texas Agriculture
Many farmers in Central Texas have delayed planting fall crops or pushed back fertilizing as they wait — and wait — for rain. The drier La Niña weather pattern is dashing hopes that fall showers could break the drought.
Hay is gone. Grazing land is dusty and brown. Ranchers continue to cull herds they can’t afford to feed.
Farmers and ranchers across Texas are being forced to make tough decisions, decisions that could ultimately change the state’s economic future.
Texas agriculture economists estimate that this drought has already cost farmers and ranchers more than $5 billion. That makes this most expensive drought on record.
Here’s one example: KUT News tried catching up with Joe Whissel, a longhorn rancher from Kingsbury, west of San Marcos. He was busy taking his cattle to the vet in Luling.
“They have to go and get health papers on them because I am going to take them to Fort Worth in two weeks to sell,” Whissel said.
Whatever stock doesn’t sell, Whissel says, he’s driving to Virginia where the pasture is green. He says he’ll sell cows there and keep a couple of bulls just in case it does rain in the spring and other cattle raisers decide to breed again.
Cattle stocks began a precipitous drought-related decline in 2007 and are now close to a historic low. But agricultural economist David Anderson says the state’s cattle industry won’t go away.
“We started this year with over 5 million beef cows, and the next-closest state to use in size is Oklahoma with 2 million,” Anderson told KUT News.
Texas’ vast stretches of rangeland are what has kept the cattle industry alive, even through nearly a decade of drought. Ranchers are getting through recurring dry periods in part by converting or leasing their land to recreational hunters.
“It’s real common for people to lease out their land to hunters, but they still have cows or whatever,” Anderson said. “But we’ve had, I think, an increase in conversion of land.”
In 1997, no land in Travis County was designated for recreational hunting; by 2007, more than 16,000 acres was. Far more than that was converted from ranchland to housing or other development.
Urbanization will continue to change what is grown and produced in Texas, said Darren Hudson, director of the Cotton Economics Research Center at Texas Tech.
“It may shift some of the products that we used to produce, like rice. Rice went away,” Hudson told KUT News. “It’s still here; we still grow rice in Texas. We’re just not the big, huge rice producer that we used to be, because that land that was suitable for that has gone away.”
The ongoing drought has made it harder to justify dedicating huge amounts of irrigated water for such crops.
On the other hand, Hudson says, the lack of water also drives improvements. Scientists are researching ways to genetically alter crops like corn to be more drought-tolerant. Technology will develop tools to cut back on wasteful watering.
Hudson adds that one day the Texas population might grow so large that demand for food makes agriculture the leading economic driver.