01.07.09

We Need Rain! RRL on Agriculture in Williamson County

Posted in Commentary, The Economy, Uncategorized, Williamson County at 2:30 pm by wcnews

Brad Stutzman’s article in the Round Rock Leader, Tough road to hoe for farmers, (although that should be “row to hoe“), does an excellent job of showing the effect the current drought has had on agriculture in Williamson County.

Because of generally hot and dry conditions 2008 was a hard year for Williamson County farmers and ranchers. But 2009 might be even worse.

Unless there’s a break in the drought, the new year could bring tough times for the approximately 2,500 county residents who make their living in agriculture.

“We’re in desperate shape right now,” Williamson County Extension Agent Bob Whitney said from his Georgetown office. “We don’t have moisture to plant with. Fertilizer prices are high. Corn seed has gone through the roof.”

While agriculture may not be the most important part of the county’s economy today, it is still extremely important.

Although agriculture is no longer Williamson County’s leading industry – which it was as recently as the 1980s and early 1990s – farming and ranching still play a major role in county life.

In Round Rock – and more recently, Hutto – much of what was once farmland has been sold for commercial and residential development.

But there remains a lot of acreage east of Interstate 35 – in areas like Taylor, Granger and Bartlett – where families still tend to their crops and livestock.

A person may not notice the scope of this when they’re traveling around the county in a car or truck, Whitney said. They’ve got to get up above the county, in an airplane, to appreciate how much of the land is still farmed and ranched.

Williamson County takes in some 476 square-miles, covering 721,000 acres, Whitney said. With about 200,000 of those acres used for farming and another 200,000 used or ranching, Williamson County is “one of the largest farming counties in Texas.

The prospects heading into 2009 aren’t promising.

Low-weight cattle

Whitney said the sale of livestock – cows and calves – accounted for about $10 million countywide in 2008, a 13-percent dropoff from $11.5 million in sales the year before.

He said Williamson County ranchers sold nearly 15,000 weaned calves, plus 2,000 head of breeder cattle and 3,000 cows for slaughter.

“That was basically [good] on price and we lost some on weight because of the drought,” he said.

Whitney is pessimistic about livestock in 2009.

An adult cow, he noted, will drink 40 gallons of water each day.

“People are out of water,” he said. “You can’t keep hauling water.”

Likewise, continued dry conditions have Whitney and [Joe Mueck - the general manager for Williamson County Grain] worried about the 2009 corn crop.

“We start planting corn by Valentine’s Day,” Whitney explained. “We need that corn in by April 1 or we get it pollinating at the hot time of year and we lose yield drastically.

“We don’t have enough moisture to plant corn right now. The seeds are in the warehouse, not on the farm.”

“There’s no way a farmer can jump out and plant corn next month,” Mueck predicted. “I hate to say blood spilled, but it’s going to be [financially in the] red for a while.”

I also recently received an email that referenced this AAS editorial on Texas’ water issues, Don’t let the state’s water options dry up. The email also mentioned this:

I also asked a county elected official about Williamson County’s growth and our water supplies. I was told, “We are good for 50 years”. Somehow I don’t see it that way. Just look at the color of the pastures and the herd reduction sales.

Water issue might be a good new topic for people to read about. The only folks that have experienced this type of drought were those who lived here in the 1950s.

Indeed. Water is certainly the next hot commodity.

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