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“It’s pretty bad out there.” That assessment from Sarah Johnson, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Amarillo, TX, sums up the drought about as well as possible.

If you need more proof of the devastation the drought has brought to a wide swath of cattle-feeding country, visit any of the livestock auctions in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and the surrounding states and watch draft after draft of flyweight calves come under the auctioneer’s chant as rancher after rancher finally gives up and sends his herd to town.

There are no words to adequately describe the devastation that nearly a year of unrelenting drought, high temperatures and searing winds has wrought. But words aren’t necessary. All it takes is to witness the look on a rancher’s face as he sits on the seat at the sale barn and watches his calves, cows and dreams pass on to someone else.

Just how bad is it?

The Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, which were the epicenter of the Dust Bowl, are at the heart of the current drought as well. But in an area that’s semi-arid anyway, drought or at least dry spells are the norm. It could be argued, in fact, that the High Plains of Texas and Oklahoma have been in an extended dry spell for nearly a decade, as have other parts of the U.S. In recent years, in fact, various parts of the West have experienced droughts up to eight years.

But dry spells are one thing; a drought this devastating is something else altogether. “We are drier than even the Dust Bowl of the 1930s,” Johnson says. Officially, as this was written, Amarillo had received slightly more than 2 in. of rain in 2011, marking the driest start to any year since records have been kept. What’s more, the area has set records for the most days over 100° ever.

The cause of the drought, according to Don Wilhite, director of the Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was last winter’s La Niña. “Often, we find that the South Central, Southwest part of the U.S., into the Southeast, move into the drought condition in association with these La Niña patterns. That’s what happened this year.”

Effect on agriculture

Perhaps the best way to describe the situation, says Danny Krienke, who farms irrigated corn, and dryland and irrigated wheat and sorghum in the northeastern Texas Panhandle near Perryton, is a tale of two bookends. “Last year was wetter than normal; this year, we’ve got exactly the opposite – we’re drier than normal.”

So dry, in fact, that some farmers abandoned some corn acres to concentrate available water on better-producing fields. While it’s hard to get a handle on exactly how many farmers and how many acres, roughly 25% of the growers in the Texas Panhandle have done so, says Brent Bean, Texas AgriLife Extension agronomist in Amarillo. Krienke estimates that as many as 60,000 acres in the northern Panhandle were abandoned early this summer as searing winds, triple-digit temperatures and single-digit humidity scorched the land.

Given that the Texas Panhandle is home to three of the top four corn-producing counties in the state, and every ear is grown with groundwater irrigation, the region’s future in farming is in question. But Krienke and others think farming will continue and corn will remain king.

“The crop of choice is corn rotated with wheat,” he says. “We know going forward, with the price of cotton nearing record highs, that probably more and more of our available water is going to be on cotton. Going forward, there will certainly be fewer acres of irrigated wheat and more acres of irrigated cotton. And there will probably be some cotton acres that displace some corn acres. But I think corn will still be king as far as the bulk of the acres.”

The reason cotton will displace corn is because cotton takes about half the water, says Steve Amosson, Texas AgriLife Extension economist in Amarillo. Continued irrigation has, over time, dropped the water table. “As water availability decreases, we’ll continue to decrease corn acreage overall,” he says.

But the effects of that acreage shift will be somewhat muted, particularly for cattle feeders in the region. “Some of that is going to be offset by production increases we see in corn,” he says, as more high-yielding, drought-tolerant hybrids come to the fore in the next several years.

And the region has been grain-deficit for the last 40 years or more. “Right now, we import more than 70% of our grain needs,” he says, as cattle feeding, hog production and dairies all rail in corn from the Midwest. “At some point, we may get down to 20% of the feed grains being produced rather than 30%. It just means we add another railcar.”

Short term, the changes in cropping patterns make the area more dependent on railed-in corn, says Kristen Odom, Texas Cattle Feeders Association communications manager.

But the region has always produced a good sorghum crop that, while not the preferred grain, is locally available and usually plentiful. “In the long term, we see it bouncing back with the possibility of an increase in sorghum due to water availability,” she says.

“With the drought, we’re seeing substantially lower cow numbers. Economically, we know we need to increase the herd, but Mother Nature is prohibiting that right now. In the future, after we receive some moisture, we expect to see producers rebuilding their herds, which will provide a steady supply of cattle to the feedyards.”

Just as with grain, many of those feeder calves come from other parts of the country. While cow-calf production still is part of the economic fabric of the region, it’s been displaced somewhat by stocker cattle to supply the area’s feedyards. So the region has been cattle-deficit for years as well, meaning cattle feeders have to bring feeder cattle from various points of the compass to keep pens full, just as they have to import corn to keep the bunks full.

What’s the future?

Predicting when the drought will break is like trying to rope a dust devil. But the next few months don’t look good, according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC).

“Officially we are in what we call ENSO-neutral conditions,” Johnson says. ENSO stands for El Niño Southern Oscillation, the official name of the El Niño-La Niña weather conditions in the Pacific. That means we’re in a lag period for the atmosphere to respond from the demise of La Niña in June.

Those ENSO conditions are expected to continue into this fall. “However, the concern is, after that time, La Niña could redevelop,” she says.

According to CPC, weather models are less certain that ENSO-neutral conditions will continue beyond the early fall, with some models predicting La Niña to redevelop later this fall.

“This forecast is supported by ongoing La Niña-like tropical atmosphere, subsurface temperature trends and the historical tendency for significant wintertime La Niña episodes to be followed by relatively weaker La Niña episodes the following winter,” the CPC reports. “Therefore, ENSO-neutral is expected to continue into the Northern Hemisphere (for the) fall 2011, with ENSO-neutral or La Niña equally likely thereafter.”

Given that, CPC’s three-month forecast calls for above-normal temperatures for the drought area and equal chances of above, below or near-normal precipitation. “So it doesn’t have much confidence on what kind of precipitation we’re going to have through October,” Johnson says.

In the meantime, cattlemen can only pray and wait. And listen to the auctioneer’s haunting chant.

To view the U.S. Drought Monitor map, go to droughtmonitor.unl.edu.