Drought Takes Its Toll on Farmers and Livestock—Consumer Food Prices Are Next
By Robert S. Eshelman
Corn and other feed crops from the Rocky Mountains to the Ohio River Valley continue to wither from the punishing sun and lack of rain. In turn, the nation's livestock, pork and dairy producers have begun to incur higher prices for what is often their biggest expense—feed for their pigs and cattle.
"Based on current estimates, the corn crop is between 20 and 25 percent smaller than 30 days ago. That's how much the crop has deteriorated in the last month," said Mike Miller, a senior vice president at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "With that, corn prices are up 50 percent. That increase in price input has an effect in beef and pork and poultry and into the energy complex. It's really impactful."
Livestock and dairy production occurs in all 50 states, with roughly 30 million beef cows and 9 million dairy cows in production. In 2011, the industry accounted for $44 billion in economic activity and $4 billion in exports, primarily to Mexico, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics.
Miller said ranchers are currently absorbing the increased costs brought about by the ongoing extreme weather conditions. But, he added, if drought and heat continue to spoil crops and cut supplies over the long term, consumers are likely to see price increases.
"The long and short of it is, when we have these price shocks, the production system absorbs those costs," he said. "If these increased input costs persist, what tends to happen is production levels decline. Then that's the moment when they impact price levels. [For] six months to a year, the costs can be absorbed."
Five states account for more than 50 percent of the total value of U.S. sales of cattle—Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Colorado—all of which are experiencing severe drought conditions and temperatures into the 90s and in some places topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Several of those states are top corn producers, as well.
Much of the livestock sector is located in the Midwest, where, according to Miller, farmers tend to have more feed resources available because they are in close proximity to corn and other feed producers. But the drought, he said, has forced ranchers to buy supplemental feed due to the increasing cost of corn and dwindling supply.
A 'worst-case scenario'
Supplemental feed—sometimes called distillers' grain—is often made from the byproducts of ethanol or agricultural production. It could be soybean or corn husks and in some areas orange peels or cotton hulls. "[The prices for supplemental feed] tend to move in lockstep with that of corn," Miller said. "My guess is distillers' grains have probably gone up, as well."
Corn prices have soared 50 percent since mid-June, in part due to shrinking crop yield projections by the Department of Agriculture.
"Everything I've seen, it seems like right now we've got the worst-case scenario," Miller said.
Livestock producers are not the only ones who rely heavily on the nation's supply of corn to feed their herds. So, too, do hog farmers, and they face many of the same consequences from the drought.
Michael Formica of the National Pork Producers Council said the cost of corn accounts for 80 to 85 percent of a producer's cost. He expects USDA to continue scaling back estimates on corn production, which he called a "dire" scenario.
Much of the nation's pork production is located in North Carolina and the Midwest. "The Midwest had the advantage," Formica said. "If prices for corn are $8 a bushel, they pay $8 a bushel. North Carolina pays eight plus two for transportation."
With corn supplies dwindling, that situation has reversed. Midwestern farmers are now having to find supplies from beyond the region, requiring additional shipping costs. Farmers in North Carolina, with its port in Wilmington, however, may gain an advantage due to their close proximity to corn imports.
"We've got large portions of the country where farmers are not able to get grain. And we're going to be seeing more farmers going out of business," Formica said. "There's a lot of concern. We're very, very worried that they'll be impacts on other sectors, like wheat. Farmers are sourcing wheat instead of corn, which will impact the price of bread."
Price impacts on consumers coming
Increases in the cost of pork might not hit consumers until next year, he speculated. Farmers might sell their pigs six months early this year, bringing about a drop in price because of an increase in supply. "But next year, those animals that come to market six months a year early aren't there. A lot of people are going to be hit hard," he said.
The extreme weather has more subtle impacts than shrinking grain supplies or a potential jump in the cost of a steak or pork chop.
Animals can suffer from a host of heat stress-related ailments that could decrease their production of milk or eggs and even result in death.
The heat wave and drought have been "devastating, absolutely devastating," said Lance Baumgard, a professor of animal science at Iowa State University. "It's two-pronged. It's an animal welfare issue, and the effective production of the animal is compromised, not just for cows but pigs and chickens."
As temperatures rise, cows, not unlike humans, tend to decrease their feed intake and undergo metabolic changes that cause an increase in the production of insulin and stress hormones. "So the animal goes into what is called a catabolic condition—a stressful condition—where it becomes interested in surviving and not lactating," Baumgard said. Infection of the mammary glands and lameness are other health risks that are increased because of heat stress, he said.
As herd animals, cows often congregate close to one another, especially during times of stress. The warmth of their collective mass can further increase temperatures, though, and heighten the risk of sickness and of a decline in milk production.
"The combination of a shower of water on a cow with air to blow it off will cool a cow just like you or me," said Thomas Overton of the Department of Animal Science at Cornell University. Covered barns or allowing cows to graze in shaded areas can also help, he said.
Baumgard estimates that each year, heat stress on cows costs farmers $3 billion. "The industry needs to develop a strategy that is pharmaceutical-, nutritional- and management-based in order to maintain animal welfare and productive capacity. If climate change continues, like the scientists tell us it is, the cost is in fact going to be bigger. So to deal with the risks is critically important."
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack met with President Obama on July 18. At a press briefing afterward, Vilsack discussed the impact of the drought on agricultural producers and consumers but resisted connecting the ongoing extreme weather to climate change. "I'm not a scientist, so I'm not going to opine as to the cause of this," he said. "All we know is that right now, there are a lot of farmers and ranchers who are struggling. And it's important and necessary for them to know, rather than trying to focus on what's causing this, what can we do to help them."
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
What Parents Can Do<p>Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.</p><p>"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.</p><p>"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.</p><p>She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.</p><p>"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.</p><p>Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.</p><p>"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/leescott/" target="_blank">Lee Scott</a>, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at <a href="https://www.goddardschool.com/" target="_blank">The Goddard School</a>. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.</p><p>Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-checklist/" target="_blank">checklist for administrators</a>, report on <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/ethics-of-reopening/" target="_blank">ethical considerations</a>, and a tracker of <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-policy-tracker/" target="_blank">state and local reopening plans</a>.</p>
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Over 300 groups on Monday urged Senate leadership to reject a bill currently under consideration that would incentivize communities to sell off their public water supplies to private companies for pennies on the dollar.
<div id="fea63" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9a6f211c2bc5aedd34837944cb8eeedf"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1281000111481294849" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Water in Illinois is overwhelmingly public. Why is Tammy Duckworth sponsoring a bill that aims to change that? https://t.co/1V36Kkd99s</div> — The American Prospect (@The American Prospect)<a href="https://twitter.com/TheProspect/statuses/1281000111481294849">1594249201.0</a></blockquote></div>
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