Photograph: Larry W. Smith/EPA
At the weekend, the Texas Forest Service responded to 63 new fires, many fanned by winds from tropical storm Lee.
Texas has been in drought for a year, with more than 3.6m acres burnt in wildfires since the fire season began in November. A record number of 38C days has dried grass and hay, leaving ranchers with no choice but to sell cows for slaughter.
Weekly auctions that usually sell 1,500 cows at this time of year are attracting 5,000 and even turning away potential sellers, underlining the cost of severe weather that Texas A&M University estimates has brought $5.2bn losses.
While Texas is the biggest drought victim, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Georgia and Louisiana are also affected. “This is an all-time record for the driest, hottest summer on record in this area since 1895,’’ said Travis Miller, a professor in Texas A&M soil and crop sciences department.
High temperatures and no rain have devastated cotton – Texas’s biggest cash crop, with about 50 per cent of the US total. Of 7.1m acres planted this year, 3.4m acres have been abandoned. “Most of that never came up; it didn’t have enough rain to seed,’’ Mr Miller said.
The country will feel Texas’s pain in higher prices for cotton and sorghum, of which Texas is also the biggest US producer. The state is the country’s second largest producer of peanuts and grapefruit and the third-biggest producer of sugarcane, carrots, honeydew melons and oranges.
“It will have a ripple effect on the national economy,’’ said Bernard Weinstein, a business economics professor at Southern Methodist University.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’s latest survey noted that all 13 of the state’s regions were in drought. It commented: “Crop insurance claims are expected to be the major source of income for the 2011 crop year.”
Yet insurance is not expected to carry businesses for years. Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the national drought mitigation centre at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said indications are that La Niña climatic conditions, which have led to drought in 33 per cent of the US, might continue into 2012.
Bill Hyman, executive director of the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas, has sold 40 per cent of his pasture cattle. Within 30 days he will sell half of what is left, and then will sell the rest. “My hay’s about out,’’ Mr Hyman said.
With supplies running up to $120 a bale – triple the normal price – and two of his three water sources already dry, it is too risky to continue: “When you run out of water, you’re done.’’
Many of his cattle had up to seven years of breeding time left. And what is fetching $500 today – given the buyer’s market – will easily cost $1,600 to replace when grazing conditions return to normal. “Other than to cry for you, I don’t know what else to say,’’ he said. Hope is low for government assistance because of the poor state of its finances.
Meat prices will rise with the loss of supply from the US biggest producer: Texas provides 16 per cent of the country’s beef cows, 37 per cent of its goats and 15 per cent of its sheep and lambs.
Beef prices, in particular, should rise, given that the second largest cattle-producing state is Oklahoma. But for Donnie Dippel, president of the Texas Agriculture Industries Association, the pain is felt now. “We’ve been selling cattle here or there,’’ he said. “We’re trying to keep a few heifers back so we don’t sell our factory. When you sell your factory, you’re through.’’