Forget Irene: The Drought in Texas Is the Catastrophe That Could Really Hurt

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Tony Gutierrez / AP

Texas may get some relief from triple-digit temperatures this week, but the drought is sure to leave its mark on family budgets

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Those ranchers who can afford it are shipping cattle to greener pastures — ranching magazines are filled with ads for pasture rentals in the Dakotas, Alabama and states where summer rains have nourished the land. The sell-off has profound implications for the U.S. beef industry, Miller says, since ranchers have nurtured their breeding stock over several generations, developing cattle suited to specific environments. A rancher on the southeast Texas coastal plain has developed a herd that is different from a West Texas cattle herd. Rebuilding herds will be a long, expensive process. "When you sell everything, you lose the genetics," Miller says. "They have selected cattle that do well under that environment and cattlemen have spent their life doing that."

In cattle-raising circles there is talk of beef being priced out of the marketplace, as the U.S. cattle herd is down to its lowest count since 1963. Aside from imported exotic products like Kobe beef, Americans have developed a taste for their own high-grade, grain-fed beef products — "Have you eaten beef in Europe?" Miller asks rhetorically — but skyrocketing prices and diminished supplies could put the price of prime steak beyond the family budget in 2012 and '13.

The bad news does not stop there. Winter-wheat-planting season runs from September through October and rain is vital to germination. Texas and Oklahoma produce almost a third of winter wheat in the U.S. — the hard wheat used in bread products. This week, Bloomberg financial news quoted wheat economists predicting a 50% jump in winter-wheat prices. If the dearth of rain continues and there is no moisture in the soil to germinate the wheat, prices could climb higher still.

As the heat advisory continued into the final days of August, there was a glimmer of hope in the forecast. Temperatures reached only 106°F in central Texas Monday as the wind shifted, allowing moist air from the Gulf to seep northwest across the state. The weather forecast even included a possibility of rain over the Labor Day holiday. But weather forecasters were warning the deficit was so large in Texas that it would take several major rain events to pull the state out of drought.

So far this year, the state has recorded about 7.5 in. of rain, Nielsen-Gammon says. "That's 40% of our normal rainfall. The previous drought was 69% of normal." He gives the state a 50% chance of lower-than-normal precipitation this winter. If the La Niña effect — cool water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific waters — kicks in later this year, those odds get tougher and go to 75% or 80% for a dry winter, Nielsen-Gammon says. The temperatures may be easing in Texas in the coming weeks, but pocketbooks around the country and the globe will be feeling the heat.

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