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The natural disaster that didn't miss

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Prime Time Specialty Mini Grid WIDGET

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POSTED: August 31, 2011 11:38 a.m.

As I watched the track of Hurricane Irene move off Florida and Georgia and out onto the Atlantic, F.J. Raymond’s comment, “Next to being shot at and missed, nothing is really quite as satisfying as an income tax refund,” kept bouncing around in my head.
Once again, Coastal Georgia has escaped peril. We have been very lucky all of last century and into this one as well.
I appreciate the concerns of emergency management directors that we have become too complacent.
Savannah recently was ranked No. 4 in a list of the top five American cities overdue for a hurricane strike. Instilling a healthy respect for the power of a hurricane without fear-mongering can be a fine line to walk.
In spite of this, if one needs to motivate a population into action, a hurricane is a pretty good event to manage. It has a beginning, middle and end in a relatively short timeline.
Recovery often is quite long, but it happens out of the sight of the media as they scramble from crisis to crisis.
While everyone has been focused on Hurricane Irene, the natural disaster happening right under our noses has gone largely unreported and even less appreciated.
No, not the earthquake in Virginia. The drought that the southern United States is suffering under right now will affect us individually in our pocketbooks for the next 10 years.
Locally, the saying “If it don’t rain, it don’t matter” is being fully appreciated.
The Oak Ridge Boys wrote some lines in one of their songs that went “We were walkin’ in tall cotton, good times there are not forgotten.” Tall cotton is important. The cotton-harvesting combine has a lot of lubrication, keeping all those spindles twirling. Sand and dirt will chew up a machine quickly, so you can’t run them into the dirt.
Tall cotton sets its bolls up high enough for the machine to catch. Up to a point, the taller the plant, the more sites it will have for setting bolls. More bolls means more cotton.
In order to get tall cotton, the fields have to get enough rain in the first few weeks following planting. If the rain isn’t there, the plants stunt out and never will get tall enough to yield a decent crop. That is where we are now.
With all too few exceptions, most of the cotton around Pembroke is short pygmy cotton barely knee high now in late August. Some fields got no rain at all and are barren even after being replanted twice.
Last year’s cotton prices at $1 per pound were record highs, which very few farmers actually received. Now the future price for December cotton is $1.04 per pound.
But guess what. You only get that price if you have cotton to sell.
The price could be $2 per pound, but if it doesn’t rain, it doesn’t matter because you have nothing to sell. And the price would have to be darned high to balance out all the failed fields.
I went to Douglas last week for a Beef Cattle Short Course and did not see any tall cotton until just before the Coffee County line. If you want to find gamblers, don’t go to Las Vegas, just drive by a farm.
There are a number of downstream ripple effects caused by the drought. Dr. Curt Lacy, extension economist for livestock at UGA, outlined the issues at the Short Course at the Coffee County Extension Office.
Less peanuts got planted this year because cotton prices are so high that anybody who could plant cotton did. That meant the peanut hay that cattlemen have counted on to feed their herds just is not there. Cottonseed and gin trash are feed materials for cattlemen, but less cotton harvested means that instead of the cottonseed and gin trash replacing the peanut hay as feed, that source also will be in short supply. Cottonseed for feed is now referred to as “gold.”
On a regional basis, the lack of rain has caused loss of pasture quality and quantity, which means cattlemen have to buy forage instead of growing it. High quality hay is tough to find, and the price is going up.
Cattlemen have to decide whether to sell their calves early or hope for rain. Twenty percent of America’s beef comes from Texas and Oklahoma, and we are seeing not just the calves, but the cows that produce the calves being sold off. If you sell off the momma cows, where do the replacement calves and replacement momma cows come from?
In the past 30 years, the U.S. calf crop has declined from just below 45 million head to just above 35 million head. This is the lowest calf crop since the 1950s.
There is a beef shortage coming. It cannot be avoided.
To paraphrase Dr. Lacy: “Cows are not cars. You can’t just crank up an assembly line and make more.”
This shortage in beef that will hit in the next couple of years will drive up the price of the other protein sources, drought or no drought. It will take years to regrow the herds.
The good news is that the cattlemen who survive this drought will be looking at a very profitable decade following this drought.
UGA Extension is working hard to help our cattlemen survive this silent but devastating natural disaster, which you will be paying for every week at the checkout register at the supermarket. And you thought food came from the store.

Gardner is the extension agent for Bryan County and can be reached at dgardner@uga.edu.

 

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