Texas rancher Bill Hyman characterizes people in his industry as “survivalists and optimists.” But the state’s worst drought in 44 years is testing both sides of that assessment.

Hyman said he cut his cow herd by more than a third over the winter, to about 80 animals, because persistent dryness has left him with little pasture for grazing. Gonzalez County, where Hyman is located, once had the most cattle of any county in Texas, he said. Now it’s closer to No. 7, he said, because drought has forced so many ranchers to sell cows and bulls.

“This is a bad drought situation shaping up and its impact will only get larger if it doesn’t rain soon,” said David Anderson, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University in College Station. The full economic effect of the drought won’t be known for some time, he said.

With limited pasture availability, ranchers have had to buy more hay and other feeds over the winter, raising their costs, Anderson said in an e-mail. Drought can also hamper animals’ weight and overall condition, he said.

The drought is connected to a La Nina effect that over the past year pushed the jet stream farther north than usual, resulting in lower than normal rain in the Southern U.S. Plains, Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said.

From October through March, Texas received about 5 inches of rain on average, the smallest total since 1966-67, Nielsen-Gammon said. Normally, the state gets about 11 inches of rain during that period.

If drought continues for the next few months, “it will have a severe impact” on Texas agriculture, Nielsen-Gammon said.” There’s not a lot of subsoil moisture throughout the state. The amount of rain we get from here on out is going to be critical.”

For the week ended March 27, Texas’ range and pasture was rated in 59 percent poor or very condition, according to the state’s agriculture department. The state’s wheat crop was rated 62 percent poor or very poor.

Texas is the No. 2 U.S. wheat grower with 5.65 million acres seeded last year, behind only Kansas’ 8.8 million acres.

More government disaster assistance likely

Drought conditions have affected parts of Texas for much of the past five years, with the federal government declaring several counties disaster areas in 2008, 2009, and 2010.

In 2011, the prospect that most Texas counties will be declared disaster areas because of drought “is looking more and more viable,” said Juan M. Garcia, executive director for Texas’ Farm Service Agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Texas has paid about $300 million in disaster assistance to farmers and ranchers for losses incurred in crop years 2008 and 2009 due to drought, Garcia said.