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Drought forces reduction in livestock

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Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2006 12:00 pm | Updated: 3:16 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Don Bolding

Killeen Daily Herald

Western Bell County ends the second year of perhaps the worst drought since 1986-87 with its water supply intact, and where crops such as corn and milo were grown, they provided good crops, area experts say.

But the livestock industry has been hard-hit.

With rainfall about one-third, or 22 inches, below normal, McLennan and Bell counties waver back and forth between drought conditions labeled "severe" and "extreme," said meteorologist Daniel Huckaby of the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.

"Normal" for any area is a 30-year average, but the average for any area, desert or jungle, is the measure of its prosperity.

Bell County extension agent Dirk Aaron said some ranchers have had to reduce their cattle and goat herds by 65 to 85 percent despite supplemental feeding that started in July – a practice that usually only lasts 45 to 60 days.

But there have been enough little bits of rain at just the right times to allow good corn and milo crops, said rancher and county commissioner Richard Cortese, a particular blessing since crops in all directions have failed.

And the water supply for other purposes is holding up. Clay Church, a public affairs specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Fort Worth, said Lake Belton was running 22 percent below its "conservation pool," its maximum before reaching flood stage, and its surface is eight feet low. Stillhouse Hollow is 10 percent below its conservation pool, 3 feet below its normal level.

Dan Thomasson, manager for both lakes, said the courtesy docks around the boat ramps are above the water, and beaches are dry, "but that's not much of a problem when the water is 50 degrees," and he said the lakes are really not in bad shape. "We've been 11 feet low before this," he said.

Below the ground, many shallow wells around 200 to 250 feet deep are going dry, according to Horace Grace, executive director of the Clearwater Underground Conservation District, "but if people can go down to about 700, they're in pretty good shape."

The CUCD is concerned with convincing residents to use surface water instead of groundwater to protect the local aquifers. The Trinity Aquifer lies under all of Bell County, and the Edwards Aquifer, the water supply for Salado, is just in the southern part of the county. Grace said the Trinity has been dropping for 20 years because of overpumping by Dallas and Fort Worth. The Edwards is also dropping but responds quickly to a good rainfall, Grace said.

"It's easier to tell when a drought ends than when it begins," Huckaby said. "In this case, the rain stopped in January 2005 after one of the wettest years on record, 2004. When it rains, agriculture will feel the relief first, but the hydrologic drought remains."

He said the area sees more usage, and lake levels suffer because of evaporation and less runoff even when it does rain because the ground soaks up the water.

"Typically, in Texas, we're either too dry or too wet," Huckaby said. "If we get sudden, heavy rains, it causes flash floods. What we need is rain totals double the normal amount for several months."

Aaron said herd owners have to invest heavily in supplemental feed, or the cattle will overgraze and damage the land beyond repair.

"Then when the rains do return, there's nothing but broadleaf weeds and broomweed," he said. "It's a particular problem with little ranchettes where the animals are really pets. Where there are enough of them, a lot of land can be damaged.

"We have to document when an entire herd is sold because when the IRS comes around and sees no agricultural activity, people can lose their exemptions."

A drought can eventually drive up the price of beef because of all the supplemental feeding, but the prices may not show up for months or years because of the national and global supply. Aaron said most producers aren't devastated economically because they have other careers, but the effects are still depressing.

"But people may spend 15 years building a herd, and then they have to sell it off," he said. Then they try to rebuild, and they can't afford the best animals. It takes them five or six years to build back up again.

"They have to start all over after a full career of it," Aaron said.

Contact Don Bolding at dbolding@kdhnews.com

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