By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Texas agriculture producers lost $7.62 billion to the state's 2011 drought, which experts said makes it the costliest drought in the state's history and possibly the most expensive drought ever suffered by any state.
"No one alive has seen single-year drought damage to this extent," said Travis Miller, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University.
"Texas farmers and ranchers are not strangers to drought, but the intensity of the drought, reflected in record high temperatures, record low precipitation, unprecedented winds coupled with duration, all came together to devastate production agriculture," he said.
The new figures released Wednesday by the university's AgriLife Extension Service go beyond estimates of $5.2 billion in losses released last fall, which counted only losses through the end of August.
Hardest hit were the state's livestock ranchers, followed by the state's cotton producers. Texas is by far the largest producer of both commodities in the United States, producing roughly 15 percent of the beef cattle and 25 percent of the nation's cotton, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. Livestock producers lost $3.23 billion, and cotton growers lost $2.2 billion.
The impact of the losses on Texas farm families is enormous, said Gene Hall of the Texas Farm Bureau.
Many ranchers tried buying hay from as far away as Montana, but when that became too expensive, they were forced to sell their herds, including the young heifers which are the basis for the future of their ranches, Hall said.
But Hall added that most farmers plan to "ride it out," and hope for better days, and more rain.
State Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said the "pain and the damage" caused by the drought cannot be overstated.
"Our state's farmers and ranchers are determined in their commitment and fierce in their resolve," Staples said.
Miller said millions of acres of Texas crops never got off the ground.
"Even irrigated farmers experienced huge losses as water supplies that they could deliver were not adequate to produce crops under these conditions with no rain," Miller said. "The drought started in the fall of 2010, resulting in very little winter grazing. Many of our pastures and hay meadows never greened up after the winter."
Hall said the impact will be higher prices for consumers nationwide for everything from steak to shirts.
Miller said that while the figures confirm it was the costliest drought ever for Texas, he said it was likely the worst drought ever in the United States in terms of agriculture losses, but that is difficult to confirm because states use different metrics in determining drought losses.
The loss figures of $7.62 billion do not include losses in the state's lucrative commercial timber industry.
"The commercial timber forested area of East Texas was among the hardest hit," said Burl Carroway of the Texas Forest Service, adding that an estimated $558 million of standing trees that could have been sold for timber, succumbed to the drought.
As the 2012 planting season begins, there is room for a certain amount of optimism. The U.S. Drought Monitor says the urban areas of east and central Texas are emerging from the drought, and drenching rains that fell earlier this week in the eastern two-thirds of the state will help the recovery process.
But across the wide expanses of West Texas, which is home to much of the state's cattle population, the drought lingers as the state moves into the traditionally hot and dry summer months.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)