Drought ongoing near San Antonio, Austin

DALLAS, TX "There's nothing. It's bad." said Davis, who fears continuing dry conditions will also fuel wildfires like a small one near her San Antonio-area spread a few days ago. "It was small because they caught it early."

Even though Texas was soaked by three hurricanes this year, nearly half the state remains under drought conditions that heighten fire concerns and threaten cattle herds in need of green grazing areas. Parts of Texas have been in at least moderate drought for a year and about 41 percent is in some stage of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor map.

The San Antonio-Austin area has been hardest hit, with about 20 surrounding counties also under extreme drought conditions. There, drought spells trouble for winter forage for cattle -- grass, wheat, oats and other cool season crops farmers and ranchers plant for grazing.

"Their crops are stressed or haven't had enough moisture to cause the seed to come up, to germinate," said Travis Miller, drought specialist for Texas AgriLife Extension Service. "Cattlemen are worried about not having enough hay or feed to carry them over the winter."

Texas is the nation's leading cattle producing state. And the South Central region's home to most of the state's cattle -- an average of more than 25,000 mother-cows per county -- that are now being sold earlier than usual, Miller said.

"It's kind of like a manufacturing plant. If you shut down an assembly line you're just not going to make any money on this one," Miller said. "That's how they make their money, having enough forage to graze (and raise) the calves."

Davis said her operation, which includes raising longhorns, can make it through the next couple of months, but the lack of fall rains meant no forage growth.

"If we don't get any rain by February, this whole area will be in emergency," she said.

Brent McRoberts, assistant state climatologist, said the drought is expected to continue or intensify in South Central Texas. That might seem strange in an area that's not all that far from where hurricanes Ike, Gustav and Dolly hit, but McRoberts said many areas outside the storm's path didn't get near enough rain this year.

"Texas is always feast or famine; normal never seems to quite happen," said Victor Murphy of the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.

Rainfall is above normal over the past 24 months. And for the first 10 months of this year, the statewide rainfall average was 23.08 inches, about an inch below the yearly average.

The drought has caused widespread concern about wildfires around the state. Burn bans have been enacted in South Central Texas and in western parts of the state. In all, about 50 of the the state's 254 counties had bans in effect, according to the Texas Forest Service.

Mark Stanford, fire operations chief for the Texas Forest Service, said conditions are similar to the dry winter of 2005 that preceded the "catastrophic" '06 fire season.

In South Texas, officials are predicting a possible repeat of last season when 27 wildfires scorched at least 76,000 acres before Dolly soaked the area and ended the drought.

"Although we're sitting in very good shape ... we'll start drying out over the next several months," Tim Spence, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Brownsville, told The (McAllen) Monitor.

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