Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Drought Takes Its Toll on Farmers and Livestock—Consumer Food Prices Are Next

Drought Takes Its Toll on Farmers and Livestock—Consumer Food Prices Are Next

Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC

By Robert S. Eshelman

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net. 202/628-6500

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."

Visit EcoWatch's CLIMATE CHANGE and FOOD pages for more related news on these topics.


Coast Guard members work to clean an oil spill impacting Delaware beaches. U.S. Coast Guard District 5

Environmental officials and members of the U.S. Coast Guard are racing to clean up a mysterious oil spill that has spread to 11 miles of Delaware coastline.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

What happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years? Halfpoint / Getty Images

By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie

Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?

Read More Show Less


Plain Naturals offers a wide variety of CBD products including oils, creams and gummies.

Plain Naturals is making waves in the CBD space with a new product line for retail customers looking for high potency CBD products at industry-low prices.

Read More Show Less
Donald Trump and Joe Biden arrive onstage for the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on Oct. 22, 2020. JIM WATSON / AFP via Getty Images

Towards the end of the final presidential debate of the 2020 election season, the moderator asked both candidates how they would address both the climate crisis and job growth, leading to a nearly 12-minute discussion where Donald Trump did not acknowledge that the climate is changing and Joe Biden called the climate crisis an existential threat.

Read More Show Less
What will happen to all these batteries once they wear out? Ronny Hartmann / AFP / Getty Images

By Zheng Chen and Darren H. S. Tan

As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch