Early Drought Leaves Fields High and Dry

From Mexico to Nebraska, crops wither and farmers scan skies

It wasn't rain. But for Dwayne Krueger, the cool overcast sky that rolled into this farming community northeast of Austin last week was the next best thing.

Like farmers from Mexico to Nebraska, Mr. Krueger is encountering the worst drought since 1956. If his farm doesn't get a long soaking rain in the next week, 800 acres of foot-high corn seedlings - and the $100,000 in seed, fertilizer, and fuel it took to plant them - will be lost.

"These plants should be waist high by now," says Krueger, kneeling over rows of yellowing plants. "And look at this soil. There's not a bit of moisture."

Whether they raise corn, cotton, cattle, or some other commodity, farmers throughout the central United States are watching as their fields are slowly baked. And the dog days of summer haven't even arrived. The drought has sent shock waves through world commodity markets, and prices for many grains are near record highs. Few states stand to lose as much as Texas, the nation's second largest agricultural producer.

"Statewide, we've had a quarter to a half of normal rainfall over the last seven or eight months," explains George Bomar, a climatologist with the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. "In any situation, that is 'drought' spelled in capital letters."

The dry conditions have put Texas cattle producers in a quandary. Over the past 18 months, cattle prices have dropped by half. Yet faced with expensive feed and little or no grass to feed their stock, many cattle raisers have no choice but to liquidate their herds. At Capitol Land & Livestock, the largest cattle dealer west of the Mississippi, volume is running up to 30 percent above normal.

"People are selling everything because they don't want to buy feed," Capitol president Jim Schwertner says.

Five-hundred-pound calves are now selling for about 45 cents per pound, Mr. Schwertner says. Eighteen months ago, those same calves brought 85 to 90 cents per pound.

"It takes about $300 to raise a calf," Schwertner says. "If you are selling the calf for 45 cents [per pound], you are losing $75 per head." But many producers simply have no choice. And there have been scattered reports that some livestock auctions are shutting down early because there are simply too many cattle and too few buyers.

While eastern Missouri saw floods last week, Kansas cattle-producers saw no relief and like Texas ranchers, face a weak market. "Two years ago, newborn calves were selling for $125," says Joe Wary, a county extension agent in Hays, Kan. "Yesterday, they brought $10."

Despite predictions that the drought will continue, many farmers in Mr. Wary's region are being lured to plant by the higher prices for grain. In fact, there is a shortage of seed: "The suppliers can't even get any seed."

The extension agent points out that last year's wheat crop in Kansas was poor. If the current crop fails, he fears that farmers will not have enough wheat seed to plant next year.

Mr. Bomar says he doesn't see any rain clouds on the horizon. "Our best indication is the drought will continue into the summer," he says, using forecasts from the Climate Analysis Center, an arm of the National Weather Service. "We are looking at subnormal rainfall for the rest of spring and the early summer." The uncertain science of cloud-seeding has begun in northern Mexico, he says, and two areas near Midland, Texas, will begin cloud-seeding in the next few weeks.

Traditional weather patterns indicate substantial rain may not come until the arrival of the tropical storm season, Bomar says. "The latter half of summer is the most difficult to predict due to the erratic nature of the tropical cyclone season," he says. "In the absence of a major tropical storm, there is no relief in sight for the drought."

Alan States of Logan, Kan., says he'd be "tickled to death" if he can harvest half of the 1,200 acres of winter wheat he planted last year.

Over the past 11 months, the central Kansas region has experienced the driest conditions in recorded history. And although the weather has hurt his crop, Mr. States could be helped by the high grain prices. Last week, the grain elevator in Logan was buying wheat for $6 per bushel, twice the price it was paying a year ago.

Even though the soil has what he calls "marginal moisture," States is planting 2,800 acres of corn. It appears that during a drought, optimism is perhaps even more essential than rain. States says his decision to go ahead and plant was simple. After all, he said, "the seed is not going to grow in the bag."

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