Texas drought reduces cattle herds, water supplies

NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas Fri Jun 17, 2011 5:25pm EDT

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NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas (Reuters) - Texas cattle ranchers are selling their herds, and some communities are running out of water, as a punishing Texas drought shows no sign of waning with the driest months still ahead.

"Things are very tough and they will stay tough until Mother Nature helps us and gets us a good rain," says Pete Bonds, who raises cattle on his family ranch west of Fort Worth.

More than half the state is now categorized as in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought conditions, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report from the Department of Agriculture.

Three months ago, none of the state was listed as "exceptional drought" and only a sliver as "extreme."

"The state as a whole had its driest March through May on record by a considerable margin," State Climatologist Dr. John Neilson-Gammon said.

He said the period dating back to October 2010 will probably also work out to be the driest eight-month period since precipitation records started being kept in the 1890s.

Nowhere is the impact of the drought being felt harder than in cattle country, where men in cowboy hats still ride the range as they have for more than a century.

Huge tracks of pasture and fields usually covered in verdant grass or flourishing crops in June are now brittle and bare, interspersed with clumps of dead brush.

"Because we're not raising the amount of grass that we usually do, we're having to destock these ranches," Bonds said in an interview. "We are having to cut the numbers down and sell cows that we don't want to. And since it is dry in a huge area, most of these cows are going to go to slaughter."

Bonds said slaughtering the heifers, the young female cows needed to replenish the herds, is like "shutting the factory down forever."

"The impact on the consumer will be two-three years down the road. (The price of) Beef is going to get a whole lot higher," he said.

Bonds said it will take years for ranchers to restock their herds and many ranchers cannot afford to wait that long. Many will simply choose to sell their land to developers or recreational users, he said.

Bill Hyman, Executive Director of the Independent Cattlemen's Association of Texas, said that each week without rain and estimated five percent of the cattle herd is sold.

"I would say that overall in Texas, ranchers have already sold 30 to 40 percent of their herds," Hyman said. "A lot of ranchers are just giving up."

In the state's towns and cities, the impact of the drought is also seen everywhere. Front lawns are brown, swimming pools are empty, and many communities have canceled their Fourth of July fireworks displays and banned use of fireworks.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority, which controls the huge underground water pool that serves three million people from south Austin through San Antonio, is preparing to implement stringent "Stage Three" water rationing for the first time, drastically limiting water use for city and rural customers.

The community of Llano in central Texas is already dealing with what many communities are trying to avoid. The spring-fed Llano River, the sole water source for the town of 3,500, is literally running dry.

"We fully expect the Llano River to cease flowing," City Manager Finley deGraffenreid said.

He said that when that happens -- as early as this weekend -- the community will turn to water stored in a nearby reservoir. But that water may be too filled with algae to be drinkable.

"That water is twenty miles away and would require some trucking," he added. "We are looking at other options in terms of providing maybe some supplemental bottled water that goes to our distribution system."

In addition to the drought, record heat is also baking the state, with triple digit temperatures forecast across much of Texas well into next week.

Nielson-Gammon says the situation is so dire, it may take tropical rains from more than one hurricane or tropical storm to bring any change in the weather.

"Normally in the summertime the water level goes down. It is very very early to be at this level this early, and more than likely it's going to get worse before it gets better," he said.

(Reporting by Jim Forsyth; Edited by Peter Bohan and Greg McCune)

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