By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY (Reuters) - Conditions for crops and livestock are growing more dire by the day in the U.S. Southwest as drought continues to grip the region.
Texas is a tinderbox, pastureland for hungry cattle is drying up, and prospects are deteriorating rapidly for wheat, corn, cotton and other crops.
"Conditions are just deplorable right now. One hundred percent of the state is currently in some form of drought," Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples told Reuters.
Data released on Thursday morning by a consortium of national climate experts said a lack of rain had caused the drought to expand over the last week to "extreme" and even "exceptional" levels in parts of Oklahoma and Texas.
In Midland, Texas, rainfall has been only 2 percent of the norm since October 1, making it the driest period on record there.
"The Southwest is pretty bad from southeast Arizona all the way over to Louisiana," said Mark Svoboda, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center. "Texas is particularly bad. It is not a very good situation."
The center released an updated report on Thursday morning showing levels of severe to exceptional drought covering Texas, most of Oklahoma and Arizona, eastern Colorado and southwest Kansas.
Wildfires are a particular problem as hot and dry conditions are compounded by high winds. More than 5,000 fires have charred 983,000 acres in Texas alone since the start of the year. One Texas wildfire has consumed more than 108,000 acres since last weekend.
Low pond levels and dried-out pastures are complicating efforts by ranchers to keep cattle healthy. And many wheat growers are giving up on fields entirely.
Sixty-six percent of the new wheat crop was rated poor to very poor by crop experts in Texas this week, with wheat growers in the state forecast to harvest only 64.8 million bushels this year, down 50 percent from last year. Early plantings of corn and cotton were also struggling.
South-central Texas normally gets about 18 inches of moisture accumulation in the first three months of the year. So far this year, the accumulation is less than 2 inches, according to the Texas Agricultural Statistics Service.
Lost agricultural production in Texas is estimated to top $3 billion, but the tally will be far greater through the region.
Texas agriculture is suffering so much that this week the state set up a relief fund to solicit donations for activities such as shipping in hay and water for livestock and rebuilding fences.
The state also has a "hay hotline" to connect people who need hay with people who have it.
Oklahoma is nearly as bad. Farmers there typically grow more than 100 million bushels of winter wheat every year, bringing in 121 million bushels last summer. Many growers this year estimate the harvest could see only 80 million bushels.
There is little relief in sight, Svoboda said. "Near-term, the forecasts are high and dry for the next week in the Southwest," he said.
(Editing by Dale Hudson)