U.S. drought threatens ‘critical injury’

The drought that is devastating much of the United States this summer was interrupted for three days in early August.

Rain came heavily, sneaking over the sunburned rangeland after the day’s end and scuttling away by the time dawn arrived.

“It’s cut down on the dust,” said rancher Adrian Gonzales, whose pastures are part of the historical 30,000 acre La Merced del Pueblo de Chilili Land Grant near Moriarty, New Mexico. “The range plants green up fast. They have to. It’s a desert, especially these days.”

Adrian Gonzales of Chilili, New Mexico, has seen drought before, but in the past few years it has left him and his neighbours with little to feed their cattle. | Michael Raine photo

However, most pastures are too far gone or there aren’t any cattle left to benefit from the recent greening.

Gonzales’ pastures appear pretty good for desert range. He still has some grazing plants, and black grama and plains lovegrass poke up between occasional tall-cane cholla cactus, mesquite and creosote bush.

A few nights rain allowed the plants to refuel. Small flowers beckoned the few bugs and birds that were still available after three dry years in a row.

Few plants thrive in pastures, forces producers to sell off herds.

“Yes. I wish I could say the pasture was all good management, but I’ve cut my down a lot,” he said, gesturing across the dash of his red Ford pickup.

“Just 25 cows and their calves left.”

The 38 C morning temperature and nearly cloudless sky were rounding up what remains of the New Mexican rancher’s animals and sending them up to the farmyard’s water bowls.

“I kept the best, but they all were good. There is not enough grass or hay. What there is will be expensive. Real expensive. There is no hay. Maybe in Canada. Maybe in Montana. The rest of the United States, none to spare,” he said. “Even little bales are $10 right now. And grain is now too much.”

Life could be worse, Gonzales said. He could have 300 cows to feed.

“My neighbour just over there, close, he has 300. It will be an unprofitable year of feeding. No grass left there now, either.”

In fact, his neighbour’s pasture was denuded of anything green.

Despite the optimistic presence of red mud sticking between the lugs on Gonzales’s heavy duty pickup’s tires, he said that unless the rain keeps coming for the rest of the summer and early fall, many farms will not do well this year.

“This whole country has a too-dry problem,” he said. “Iowa, Illinois, it is much worse for them. They always have water. Their business and land costs are built on water. We in the desert, we get dry and we do what we have to. But this time it feels different. This time people couldn’t keep the cattle.”

Livestock producers in the American southwest have been hit hard by the drought as pastures dry up, feed prices rise and a cattle sell-off meat prices down. | Michael Raine photo

He wondered if the government will help.

“They are meeting up north someplace. Chicago? They might have a feeding program or some subsidy for hay. That would be good. So we can hang on and maybe get back to it again if this drought ends,” he said.

U.S. president Barack Obama, touring Iowa last week, initiated a $170 million purchase of meat to use some of the surplus in the national meat supply created when producers sold cattle in the face of pasture loss and high feed prices.

The federal purchase amounts to about one week’s U.S. production.

A week earlier, agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said the government also plans to assist producers, despite the American House and Senate approving different versions of a new U.S. farm bill and not approving a compromise.

Provisions within an extension of the legislation would likely seed an emergency farm support fund and keep crop insurance coming, but it is nothing farmers could plan around.

Juan Garcia, head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, told farmers at a local meeting in New Mexico that the safety net isn’t fully known yet.

Most of the U.S. now falls into a USDA D4 extreme drought category, which means livestock producers are eligible for forage disaster assistance that can pay up to 60 percent of feed costs for up to three months.

Kansas State agricultural economist Barry Flinchbaugh said the situation is a crisis that must be addressed by a new farm bill rather than an extension of the old one.

“Those feed bills won’t be small with prices high and supply short,” he said.

“There will be critical injuries to North American agriculture. It’ll get you guys up in Canada if there are hog and cattle reductions in the U.S. Who will finish then?”

Corn crops in the US Midwest will have greatly reduced yields for 2012.

The Aug. 10 USDA crop report cut 30 bushels per acre from this year’s estimated corn crop, and corn futures prices have set new record highs above $8.50 per bushel. Soybeans are above $16.

Midwestern farmer Ronnie Mohr of Greenfield, Indiana, went to Washington, D.C., at the end of July to discuss the drought and the state of the farm economy in the U.S. with federal officials.

Mohr serves on the board of the 300,000 member Land O’ Lakes agricultural co-op and the Indiana Corn Growers Association.

“I think a federal bail-out is a bad idea,” he said while attending co-op meetings in Minnesota.

“It sends the wrong economic signals to grain farmers. If you use the crop insurance systems that are out there, you will be fine. The marketplace will look after prices and if you, I mean the government, intervene too much, then the system starts to show its cracks.”

However, he said that’s not the case for livestock producers. They need help, he added, because they don’t have access to the same level of risk management.

“They can’t manage sustained high feed costs or pasture loss.”

Jerry Kozak of the American National Milk Producers Association has been lobbying Washington for a new five-year farm bill to replace the current one, which officially ends Sept. 30.

His organization has asked the House and Senate to approve changes to the country’s Dairy Security Act, which would add new risk management strategies to deal with the current drought and other economic threats.

He said high feed costs, low milk prices and restricted demand in 2009 cost U.S. farmers $20 billion in equity and put thousands of dairy operations out of business.

Kozak said 2012 could be worse yet.

Joe Mohr of Greenfield, Indiana, said he expects less than 60 percent of his usual crop this year. He said the corn in his area of eastern Indiana has small deformed cobs. | Michael Raine photo

In Indiana, Mohr’s brother, Joe, plans for a big helping of crop insurance this fall because the family’s corn crop will likely yield less than two-thirds of the normal 160 bu. per acre.

Joe is already feeding hay and grain to his cattle in Indiana, normally something that happens between American Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“I feel bad for the folks with lots of cattle and no pasture,” he said.

“It’s going to be a lean Christmas if you have to buy the groceries for the livestock. In beef, there is little protection from a cycle like this. Not good for farming communities.”

Gonzales said the drought and the tough economy are playing havoc with society in his corner of the country, where a sparse population relies on construction and farm labour for much of their incomes.

“Some folks came and broke into my parents, my grandparents old home.… They cut the lock off the (ranch road’s) gate. They took the three wood stoves. They even removed the little hitch unit off a trailer,” he said.

“There is something desperate about that. If they need some food, I would give it to them. With a farm, we always have some more. I could give them a little money. I don’t want this country to be a desperate place,” he said.

“It’s a bad drought, bad timing,” he added as he wired the gate closed and waited in the steamy morning air for the police to come.

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