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Southwest farms pant for rain

The "short grass" country of southwestern grazing cattle. Drying water ponds further add to the woes of local ranchers. The cotton fields stretching from Austin to Dallas are parched, and farmers who had anticipated a bumper crop this year now worry about a sharply smaller harvest.

The corn crop yield of central Texas may be only half what it was expected to be just a few months ago.

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Sizzling heat and lack of appreciable rain throughout much of the US Southwest and up into some of the Great Plains states are beginning to take an economic toll on the region's important agricultural sector.

The heat wave already has caused great physical discomfort, and hospitals in several Southwestern states report a sharp increase in heat-related fatalities.

The heat and lack of moisture have not yet brought disaster for farmers. In fact, in the Texas panhandle area the weather is considered ideal for a speedy harvest of the winter wheat crop.

But as the high temperatures persist -- the National Weather Service forecasts no significant change for the Southwest through July 11 -- losses are mounting and the potential for a severe decline in crop and meat production increases. Some farming regions of Texas, which has borne the brunt of the heat wave, have had no rain for two months, and temperatures have been exceeding 100 degrees F. for two weeks in many Texas communities.

The farm threat comes at a time when the agriculture community in general is troubled. Nationally, farmers' net income will be down 40 percent in 1980 due to high interest rates and other sharp increases in costs, predicted economist Carl Anderson of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.

"The [farm] producers were in a very sensitive situation to begin with, and they will feel the impact [of the heat wave] faster," Mr. Anderson added.

Agricultural economist Marvin R. Duncan of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City noted that drought conditions have plagued the northern palins states of Montana, North and South Dakota, and parts of Wyoming since last winter. Coupled with the heat in the Southwest, he reckons that overall US meat production could drop significantly over the next year.

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Hot weather causes cattle in feed lots to gain weight more slowly. Already it has been responsible for sizable losses of poultry in the Southwest.

"We are seeing a set of circumstances that point to significantly higher meat prices" in 6 to 12 months, Mr. Duncan said.

Ranchers in southwest Texas are faced with the tough decision of whether to begin feeding cattle hay, which is expensive, or sell off their herds. Typically, the cattle spend most of the summer grazing, but the heat and lack of rain have killed most of the spring grass.

"The heat has deteriorated the pasture conditions, and water is short. Some ranchers are shipping cattle to other areas for watering and some are just selling them at auction," said Steve Monday of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, a trade group.

This could adversely affect the cattle industry's attempts to rebuild herds after the prolonged decline in beef supplies that began in 1976. This decrease in beef supplies has been responsible for sharply higher consumer prices, and the slowing of the rebuilding process will, in the long run, keep prices higher, say agriculture experts.

Corn and sorghum crops are the most threatened by the dry, hot weather. In central Texas the yield mey be cut in half by harvest time this fall as a result stunted growth, predicted Dr. Anderson.

Conditions are worsening dur to the heat along the western edge of the corn belt in Kansas and Missouri, where farmers are "increasingly anxious for rain," said Mr. Duncan.

Dr. Anderson assessed the situation this way: "The effects of the heat wave are not yet irreversible. Two more weeks of this and things will be very serious.Four to six more weeks, and we could have a major disaster."

But a break in the heat and a good dousing of rain soon could get the farming community back on track without severe economic losses, according to Dr. Anderson.

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