By BETSY BLANEY Associated Press
LUBBOCK, Texas — A historic drought has already cost Texas farmers and ranchers an estimated $1.5 billion, and the cost is growing daily as parched conditions persist in much of the state.
May is typically the wettest month in Texas, but parts of the state haven't seen significant rain since last August. Officials said if the drought continues into June, losses for the nation's second largest agriculture producer will top $4 billion, making it the costliest season on record.
"We're well on our way to breaking the record of the past," said Carl Anderson, an agricultural economist with Texas AgriLife Extension Service, referring to the 2006 season.
Anderson is 79 and has seen many droughts, but he said this year looks as bad as anything since the record dry years of the 1950s.
"This (drought) will match anything I saw in the `50s," he said.
The Lubbock area between Nov. 1 and Tuesday got just 1.17 inches of rain — about 17 percent of the normal 6.70 inches for that span.
Meteorologists blame the conditions on La Nina, a cooling of the Pacific waters near the equator. It's caused extreme drought in Texas and parts of Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico even as much of the eastern half of the nation endured wet, cold weather.
The drought has dried up cattle ponds and grass crunches underfoot in many fields.
Texas livestock producers have seen the biggest losses — about $1.2 billion of the $1.5 billion total, which includes increased feeding costs to pay for hay, lost value of wheat pasture grazing and the high costs associated with hauling water daily to meet animals' needs, Anderson said.
About 90 percent of Texas' beef cows are located in counties in severe to exceptional drought.
For some farmers, the season is already lost, but there's still time for those in some regions. In the South Plains region of West Texas around Lubbock, for example, cotton can be planted as late as June.
Still, Anderson estimates South Plains producers will produce 2 million bales less of dryland cotton — grown in fields that aren't irrigated — than usual, resulting in a $1.2 billion loss.
Texas typically plants about half the U.S.'s cotton acreage, so a large-scale failure could cause a price spike, though that would depend on crops elsewhere in the U.S. and in other countries as well as demand.
West Texas cotton producer Rickey Bearden usually plants dryland cotton on about two-thirds of his 9,000 acres. Without rain, he said most of that will be lost.
"It doesn't look bright right at the moment but I haven't given up yet," Bearden said. "We'll have to have some help from Mother Nature."
State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said farmers are running out of time. If rains don't arrive soon, "it'll be too hot for the crops to recover," he said.
The drought also comes when farmers already were faced with increased costs for fertilizer and diesel.
Some ranchers, faced with no hay crop, have opted to reduce the size of their herds rather than pay up to $2 a day per head to truck in feed.
East Texas cattle producer Phil Sadler, who's ranched for about 35 years, said he could go out of business if it remains dry.
"At least we'll have to scale down and do things a little differently," the 64-year-old said. "If it doesn't rain it wouldn't be life as usual. Things will have to change."
Texas has a long history with droughts, and since 1998, they have cost Texas agriculture $13.1 billion.
Anderson said the rest of the spring will determine how this year ranks in the history of Texas droughts.
"It's early," Anderson said. "The question is do we get rain in the next four weeks to salvage some of the plantings."
Associated Press writer Betsy Blaney can be reached at http://twitter.com/betsyblaney.