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Dead cows and ripped up crops: A new reality due to drought in the West

Farmers are resorting to drastic measures during the drought, which will likely lead to food shortages in the coming years

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Young steers stand in the light of the rising sun on a cattle ranch in Beaver County, Utah, on Feb. 18, 2022.

Young steers stand in the light of the rising sun on a cattle ranch in Beaver County in central Utah on Feb. 18, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A new survey by the American Farm Bureau Federation is painting a dire picture for farmers and ranchers across the West who are reeling from the worst drought to hit the region in 12 centuries.

Ranchers are killing cows and farmers are pulling up crops that won’t reach maturity due to lack of water.

The survey tapped more than 600 responses in 15 states and was conducted over the summer.

What’s at stake: The survey notes that the “overwhelming majority of fruits, tree nuts and vegetables are sourced from drought-stricken states where farmers are feeling forced to fallow land and destroy orchards, which will likely result in American consumers paying more for these goods and either partially relying on foreign supplies or shrinking the diversity of items they buy at the store. Drought conditions in the U.S. also risk global access to some items like almonds, since California produces 80% of the world’s supply, greatly limiting buyers’ procurement options.”

The analysis, drawing on numbers from 2021, puts the production value of this drought-stricken region at $364 billion, accounting for 74% of beef cattle and 50% of dairy production.

The Texas tragedy: The largest herd decline is in the Lone Star State, where there has been a 50% reduction.

Matt Hargreaves, spokesman with the Utah Farm Bureau, said the drought is also hitting farmers and ranchers in Utah, fueling crop reductions and smaller cattle herds.

“It continues to be a big struggle,” he said. “Ranchers have been reducing herd sizes for the last couple of years due to feed availability and the condition of the rangeland. Especially down south, ranchers have had to sell off half their herds.”

The plight of crops: According to the survey, regional respondents expected average crop yields to be down 38% this year because of drought conditions, with the biggest drop expected in Texas (yields reported down 68%), followed by Oklahoma (down 60%) and New Mexico (down 54%). Washington farmers are expecting the lowest yield decline (down 8%). 

In California, 50% of respondents reported removal of orchard trees or other crops is “prevalent” due to the drought, according to the survey. Utah’s number stands at 19%.

One Arizona farmer lamented vanishing fields amid population growth and told this to the survey:

Many of the fields near us are now fallow. Cropland is being converted to housing developments at an alarming rate. Over 10,000 new homes are expected within a 10-mile radius of my house — most within a 5-mile radius, all on cropland or former dairies. It is frustrating and alarming. Where will the food come from if we grow houses instead of food?”