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Drought threatens winter grain crop

High fire risk cited in southern Plains

WASHINGTON -- Intense drought in the southern Plains stressed pastures and winter grains last month and pushed the risk of fire to critical levels, the Agriculture Department said Wednesday.

Farmers there have planted more fields with winter wheat, a major Plains crop, than they did last year. Acreage is up in Texas and Oklahoma, where fires have raged in recent weeks, as well as in Kansas, the biggest winter wheat state.

Texas Panhandle farmer Tommy Womack planted wheat in September, but in some fields, not one seed came up.

At this point in a normal season, fields should look from a distance like a golf course, with dark green plants 2 to 3 inches above the ground, he said.

''We've not had any moisture at all, and you can dig down and find the seed we planted -- it looks just like it did the day we planted it," Womack said.

The extent of crop damage in the region is unknown, said Stephen H. Amosson, professor and extension economist for Texas A&M University. But he said the drought has cost Texas producers between $10 million and $15 million because fields can't be used for grazing cattle.

''At this point, it's too early to tell what kind of damage we've done to the yield, because wheat is such a resilient crop," Amosson said. ''We'll have a better assessment here in another month or two, when it starts to come out of dormancy. If there's no moisture, it could be a disastrous situation."

In northeast Texas, where there usually is more rain, farmer Jack Norman said time is running out.

''If it doesn't rain in the next 10 days or so, there will be no wheat in the northeast Texas area. What little bit did come up is dying," said Norman, who farms 60 miles southeast of Dallas. ''It's like a desert here this year."

Nationwide, winter wheat plantings are up 2 percent from last year, the department said in its monthly crop report.

Price estimates for the wheat crop stayed steady in December at $3.25 to $3.50 a bushel, compared with $3.40 in 2004. Wheat production in 2005 was an estimated 2.1 billion bushels, slightly less than the 2.16 billion bushels produced in 2004.

The outlook remained steady, or even improved, for other major crops and livestock.

The outlook for cattle prices improved with the resumption of exports to Japan, which last month lifted a mad cow disease-related ban on US beef. Japan was the industry's best customer until mad cow disease turned up in a Washington state cow in 2003.

The department projects prices at $81 to $87 per hundredweight, compared with last year's average of $87.28.

Pork prices should be steady while chicken prices continue to drop because of declining exports. Consumption is expected to remain strong.

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