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Drought Takes Toll on Texas Cattle Farmers

By By Jillian MacMath, AccuWeather staff writer
February 09, 2012, 6:22:51 AM EST

With clear, blue skies abounding and the chance of precipitation seeming more like a dream than a reality, Texas farmers continue to face the worst drought in the Lone Star State's history.

This drought can be attributed largely to La Niña, a phenomenon that typically causes exceptionally dry and mild weather in the southwestern U.S. La Niña is characterized by below-normal sea surface temperatures across the equatorial central and eastern Pacific.

"La Niña winters feature a stronger northern jet stream, an area of strong winds high above the Earth's surface. This positioning and strength of the jet stream over the northern portion of North America tends to cause storms to track across the northern tier of the U.S. Therefore, moisture from storms often bypasses the Southwest during La Niña winters," according to AccuWeather.com Meteorologist Meghan Evans.

As if the drought isn't bad enough, when paired with unseasonably high temperatures and the rising cost of hay, it's enough to cause a dire situation for Texas cattle farmers, who have resorted to slaughtering their animals, selling them off or shipping them up north where grass and water are more abundant.

In 2011 alone, the number of cows in Texas dropped by more than 600,000, a decrease of over 12 percent. According to the Department of Agriculture, there are only 91 million cattle across the nation, the smallest amount seen since 1952.

"The drought forced many small ranchers to sell off their herds and some will never return to the business," Bryan Black, Director of Communications for the Texas Department of Agriculture said. "Ranchers with larger herds and more capitol are able to hold on to their animals and deal with the high costs of feeding during this devastating drought."

The year marked the largest-ever one-year decline in Texas' cow herd with exception to the decline from 1934 to 1935 due to the Great Depression and Dust Bowl.

However, with the demand for beef remaining consistent and the supply lower than usual, cost fluctuations on the shelves are already visible to consumers.

"Experts are putting the increase at the retail market at around 10 percent from the same time a year ago. The wholesale price of choice-grade beef, on average, is up around 14 percent from the same time a year ago," Black said.

To date, Texas remains the largest producer of beef cows in the U.S., carrying 16% of the nation's supply.

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