October 01, 2011


 Running dry in Texas

Cattle, wildlife hurt by severe heat, drought

Dr. Travis W. Arledge has had clients "left and right" in north-central Texas who were forced to sell livestock and horses because of a lack of drinking water, sufficient grazing land, or affordable hay.

"Hay in this area has, I would say, quadrupled in price in the last six months," Dr. Arledge said.

Three of his pet-owning clients and their families were forced to leave their homes when their wells dried up earlier this year.

Dr. Arledge, owner of Pioneer Veterinary Clinic of Winters, Texas, also has not seen a single cotton plant growing on the cotton farms planted near his practice this year.


U.S. Drought Monitor map


The most severe drought conditions are displayed in deep red on this U.S. Drought Monitor map, which is provided by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The U.S. Drought Monitor is a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center, United States Department of Agriculture, and Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL)


(Click image to view larger version.)

State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon announced in early August that Texas was in its most severe one-year drought on record. By mid-August, the National Drought Mitigation Center's U.S. Drought Monitor reported about 75 percent of Texas was experiencing "exceptional" drought, the most severe of four drought categories. Those areas along with areas designated as experiencing "extreme" drought, which is the second most severe category, covered 93 percent of the state. Portions of Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico, Kansas, and Arizona had similarly severe drought conditions.

"Climate data show that the Lone Star State is in its driest ten-month period ever on record in over a century of data," the drought monitor reported. "This is unprecedented territory as the precipitation deficits mount and triple digit temperatures continue to increase water demand."

Economists with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service of Texas A&M University reported by late summer that the 2011 drought had caused about $5.2 billion in agricultural losses, of which about $2.1 billion was connected with livestock. The National Weather Service reported that hay production was "extremely limited," and 94 percent of Texas pasture and rangeland was in poor or very poor condition.  

Finding ample feed

By mid-August, Dr. Arledge had spent every daybreak for three weeks working at pens on farms and ranches to test cows for pregnancy. Each day, he hoped to finish before 10 a.m., when the heat intensified. He doesn't normally perform such tests until fall, but cattle owners needed to know which cows they should keep, sell, and send to slaughter. 

Others hoped that shipping their cattle out of state would allow them to keep the animals.

"At least once a week for the last two months, I've had to go out and look at cows to write health papers for them to go to Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, or the Dakotas," Dr. Arledge said.

Dr. Glenn M. Rogers, who lives in Aledo, Texas, and is director of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners district covering Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, has sold part of his own cattle herd and shipped about 100 remaining animals from his northern Texas ranch to pastures in South Dakota.

The cattle will, until early November, stay four states to the north because their usual grazing lands have insufficient grass to support them. Dr. Rogers expects rangelands in the area will take years to recover.

Dr. Rogers said many ranchers have been forced to choose whether to temporarily move their cattle out of the state, liquidate their herds, or pay inflated prices for hay to supplement lacking forage.

"You're paying triple the price for a low-quality product," Dr. Rogers said.

Some of the ranchers who culled less productive animals or liquidated their herds had spent years, if not generations, building those herds, Dr. Rogers said.

In a typical summer, cattle in the area get nearly all their nutrition from grazing on range grasses, Dr. Rogers said. But finding acceptable grazing areas is increasingly difficult, and surface ponds have dried up or shrunk to mud pits, which can be dangerous to cattle, he said.

Because cattle typically can't travel more than a mile for water, even those ranges that still have grass can be unusable if nearby water supplies are depleted, Dr. Rogers said. Other ranges may still have water but not enough grass.

The heat is harming animals' health indirectly through nutritional deficiencies associated with the reduced forage and dwindling reserves of drinking water, Dr. Rogers said. Calves may experience additional health problems later, particularly respiratory disease, because of inadequate immune responses to vaccines during the prolonged period with 100°F-plus temperatures. He typically recommends vaccinating cattle only when the heat index is below 85°F, a point not reached in months.

Dr. Arledge said livestock still on the range in Texas also have been experiencing unusually high numbers of respiratory problems because of the dust and heat, as well as extended recovery times following treatment. Some of the range animals have aborted pregnancies or died after eating toxic plants.

"In a normal year, when there was grass to choose from, they wouldn't eat those plants," Dr. Arledge said.

Dr. K. Shawn Blood of Guymon, Okla., works with feed yards and a ranch in the Oklahoma Panhandle and is an AABP district director for Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. He said younger, lighter cattle have been arriving at feedlots rather than grazing until fall, which would be typical. He thinks feed yards may find fewer than usual cattle available for purchase this fall and winter because of the quantity sold during summer.  

Horse owners mitigating problems

Dr. William A. Moyer, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, said most horse owners have small numbers of animals, live in urban or semi-urban areas, and can care for the animals despite the heat. For the small proportion receiving poor care, he said heat and drought could amplify health problems. He hadn't heard of such problems, however, among domestic or wild populations.  

But horse owners have paid inflated feed prices because of the drought and the wildfires that have burned large areas since spring.

The Texas Forest Service at Texas A&M University reported that, from Nov. 15, 2010, to Aug. 15, 2011, the forest service and local fire departments responded to 18,300 fires that had burned about 3.4 million acres in Texas alone.

Dr. Arledge said the fires added to the difficulties ranch owners faced in feeding their animals.

"What little vegetation we did have left due to the drought, a lot of it has gotten burned up," Dr. Arledge said.  

Restless, absent wildlife are signs of water shortage

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department announced in July that more nocturnal animals, such as foxes and skunks, had been active during the day to search for water and food. Department biologist John Davis said in another announcement that some species' populations could be strengthened as weaker members die, but he was concerned about toads and other short-lived animals that need rain to breed.  

Parks and wildlife department announcements also indicated that the state's depleted streams could lead to fish deaths as a result of low dissolved oxygen concentrations and high temperatures.

Between 5 million and 6 million waterfowl typically spend winter in Texas, and excellent breeding ground conditions in the Dakotas and southern Canada are expected to contribute to the arrival of an unusually large number of birds in 2011. But many of the birds may leave for areas to the east, north, or south in response to limited fresh water and food.

USDA aiding recovery

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in early August that the Department of Agriculture would help farmers, ranchers, and communities affected by the drought as well as those affected by floods, fires, and tornadoes earlier this year.

"At USDA, we are working tirelessly to get assistance to folks who need it and are searching for flexibility in our programs to help farmers and ranchers in these difficult times," the announcement states.

By Aug. 8, about $520 million in indemnity payments had been distributed to agriculture owners affected by the drought, $88 million was given in response to flooding, and $85 million was given for other disaster relief.

About $114 million from the Livestock Forage Program was also used to help ranchers buy feed for livestock. That total includes about $50 million in Texas, $24 million in Oklahoma, and $11 million in New Mexico.

Vilsack also announced that the USDA Farm Service Agency was modifying its Conservation Reserve Program, through which the USDA pays landowners to grow permanent vegetation on idle and highly erodible farmland, to give some farmers and ranchers an additional month for emergency grazing on such land.

"Many ranchers have been or will be forced to sell livestock due to drought, and USDA will do what we can to help our farmers and ranchers during these challenging times," Vilsack said in the announcement.