Beginning in the fall of 2010 and stretching throughout 2011, farmers and ranchers in the Southern Great Plains have endured one of the worst droughts since the Dust Bowl.
While the drought stretches across 14 states from Florida to Arizona, the three states experiencing the worst conditions are Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. At the end of July, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared 74 of Oklahoma's 77 counties a natural disaster area. USDA had already declared all 254 counties in Texas a natural disaster area in June.
According to the United States Drought Monitor, the entire state of Oklahoma is in at least a moderate drought; more than 75 percent of the state is considered either in a severe or extreme drought; and 42 percent is rated to be in exceptional drought, the highest level possible. Exceptional drought is defined as widespread crop/pasture loss and shortages of water creating emergencies.
South of the Red River, more than 91 percent of Texas is in extreme or exceptional drought. Texas climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon has been cited as saying that if the drought continues until September, this could be the worst drought in state history since recordkeeping began in 1895.
The extremely dry and hot weather patterns are caused by a La Nina effect, which is an abnormal cooling of Pacific waters that prevents moisture from reaching the southern United States. There has been very little precipitation in the region since September 2010, and weather projections say that the trend of warm weather and sparse rainfall is expected to continue for the next three months. This will extend an already devastating drought.
As a result of the prolonged drought, producers have experienced dramatic yield reductions. Many crops have produced only about 25 percent of the total yield compared to last year, with some farmers having experienced almost complete crop losses as in the case of wheat.
Many lifelong producers have not seen this type of heat or lack of precipitation since the record-setting drought of the mid-1950s or even the Dust Bowl. In response to the urgent need for up-to-date drought management information, the Noble Research Institute has developed a special Web page (noble.org/drought) that will serve as a central repository for resources to assist agricultural producers throughout this difficult situation.
Information for the page was compiled by the Noble Research Institute's agricultural consultants and is supplemented by resources gathered from university researchers and agricultural experts from across the country. The page, which will be updated as long as the drought persists, will provide insight into numerous aspects of drought management from safeguarding pastures and destocking to tax implications and wildlife concerns.
For livestock producers, the drought has been particularly distressing. Drought conditions have reduced or eliminated essential water resources and destroyed forages vital for grazing. Texas and Oklahoma combine to produce more than 20 percent of the beef cattle in the United States. However, without forages for summer grazing or a supply of hay for winter, many are being forced to destock.
A recent New York Times article estimated that damage from the drought will reach into the billions of dollars (more than $3 billion in Texas alone) with the full impact of crop and livestock losses to the agricultural industry not fully realized for many years to come.