The drought just wouldn't turn loose in Texas and Oklahoma as 2013 began on a dry note. And the "clouds" were the political ones in Washington as politicians continued to wrestle with agricultural policy, leaving producers with no direction of how the wind will blow there.
For many producers in the Southwest, they are now dealing with their third year of drought.
Taylor County cattle producer Steve Stockton, who also grows wheat and cotton, had less than half his average rainfall in 2011, the year of both record drought and heat in Texas, followed by 2012 with some sporadic rainfall—but still long periods of merciless dry conditions and extreme heat.
Now in 2013, his winter wheat pasture is only providing limited grazing. He rotates cattle from place to place, trying to provide them forage. Stockton also is feeding hay regularly and is providing mineral blocks for this primarily Brangus cattle herd in hopes of getting them through winter in good flesh.
In 2011, he had rolled up 80 bales of wheat hay. He also had some round bales of hay grazer. But Stockton needed a little cash flow, and sold a few of his bales. He was sure glad he didn't sell them all.
"If I'd had a crystal ball, I wouldn't have sold any hay," he looks back now.
He also had a stroke of pure luck—as he sees it. Stockton was able to run cows from late 2011 to June 2012 on some volunteer wheat.
"If I'd plowed it up, I wouldn't have had anything," Stockton reflects. "As a general rule, you don't want to depend on volunteer wheat. But in this case, if I hadn't had volunteer wheat, I would have had to sell my cows."
But with that volunteer wheat bridging the grazing gap as drought persisted—and the big round hay bales he had kept—he has survived into 2013 with this cows.
Stockton feels fortunate to have good water available for cattle. He caught one good rain last September that helped put a lot of water in his stock tanks. He hasn't had to haul water to cattle since Year 2000, and for that, he is thankful.
Drought never ended
Gaylon Morgan, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service state cotton specialist, College Station, says for much of Central and West Texas, the drought just never ended. Although not as severe as the historic record 2011 Texas drought and heat, the 2012 crop year was still mighty tough—extremely hot and dry over most of Texas.
Morgan says neighboring Oklahoma did not fare any better. In fact, Oklahoma only harvested only harvested 50% of its original planted acres in 2012.
The cotton specialist says he fully expects a big decrease in cotton plantings in 2013, as cotton will find it difficult to complete with more attractive grain crops, even if some rainfall returns.
Texas A&M University Regents Professor and Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon says El Nino, a warming of temperatures of the Pacific Ocean surface water—which typically means more rainfall—failed to live up to its earlier expectations and just fizzled out.
But La Nina, a cooling of ocean surface temperatures that largely resulted in that historic 2011 Texas exceptional drought and also dry conditions in 2012, may not be a big factor in 2013, either. Instead, he says the Tropics look neutral for 2013. Nielsen-Gammon says cotton growers and other producers shouldn't expect a return to a generally wet year, but more of a neutral growing season this year.
The noted climatologist says to keep in mind that other factors always could affect the weather—such as volcanic eruptions, dust in the atmosphere, ground cover or lack of it on land, and other forces. The Atlantic Ocean always has the potential to impact weather in the Cotton Belt too.
Nielsen-Gammon would like to forecast better news, but he says perhaps "neutral" Tropics is not such a bad thing, since the Tropical weather patterns had been hammering Texas and Southwest producers in recent drought-stricken years.
Farm Bill extension
As they rushed out of town with the New Year upon them, Congress took last-minute action to postpone the fiscal cliff with the American Taxpayer Relief Act, agriculture got to go along for the ride with HR 8 included as an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill.
The House failed to act on either the Senate or the House Agriculture Committee versions of a new five-year farm bill before the 112th Congress adjourned. So the last minute extension was the best the lawmakers could muster.
The short-term action extends the 2008 Farm Bill for nine months through September 2013. Both major farm groups and livestock organizations preferred a full 5-year farm act. Now it will be up to the 113TH Congress to start the process of hearings and testimony all over again in pursuing a 5-year bill. Experts say it will not be an easy road to get a new farm bill through Congress.
Mark Lange, president of the National Cotton Council, notes the U.S. House is still controlled by the Republicans, the U.S. Senate is still controlled by Democrats, and the same person is in the White House.
Failure of the 112TH Congress to pass a full 5-year farm bill already is having an impact, Lange notes. It means that even if a deal is reached this year, $24 billion to $30 billion in farm cuts for 5 years will have to see the reductions packed into 4 years.
Lange says the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 will be a "means test" for taxpayers. Although it authorizes limited disaster assistance for livestock producers for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, the funds still will have to be approved by the Appropriations Committee. That means that $80 million for livestock indemnity assistance is subject to appropriated funds.
A lot simply comes down to rain returning to cattle country. Beef prices have remained strong as shrinking numbers of feeder cattle continue to support the market.