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Harsh drought in South hitting far and wide, report says

By Karen Brooks

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A severe southern drought devastated the largest area of the United States in over a decade in July, charring pasturelands, drying rivers and laying waste to wildlife and livestock, a report said on Monday.

Some 12 percent of U.S. land was seeing "exceptional drought," the biggest contiguous area to suffer such tough conditions in at least 12 years, the report by the National Drought Mitigation Center said.

"It's really focused on the southern U.S. and the southern plains in particular," said climatologist Brian Fuchs, whose mitigation center began publishing a drought monitoring report in 1999.

"Outside of that region, most of the country is doing well. It really stands out to me that there's not a lot of the country being impacted, but where the drought is, it's very significant," he said.

Among the hardest hit states are Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico, which are all experiencing drought in 100 percent of the state, according to the report.

Texas was worst hit, Fuchs said. More than 90 percent of the state was experiencing "extreme" or "exceptional" drought, some 3.4 million acres have been scorched by wildfires, and all but a handful of counties are under a burn ban.

Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina were also showing drought in more than 95 percent of the state, the report says.

Texas agricultural officials were waiting until the U.S. Department of Agriculture's crop report comes out later this month to tally agricultural losses due to the selling of livestock and the destruction of crops, including corn and cotton.

But they have indicators. Five years ago, the state saw losses of some $4.1 billion due to a savage drought that year, said David Anderson, an economist with the Texas AgriLife Extension service at Texas A&M University.

"We won't be surprised if it's a lot bigger than that this time," Anderson said.

IMPACT ON FOOD PRICES

Tropical Storm Don, which fizzled as it hit the Texas coast at the weekend, was a disappointment in a state that really needed what Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples called "rain with a name", a big, organized rain event that would soak the parched earth, the AgriLife extension service said.

"Every day we go without rain is a day we creep deeper into a devastating drought," Staples said. "Our farmers and ranchers are losing their livelihoods, and ultimately, all Americans could suffer through increased food prices."

Food prices are where the city dwellers will see the most impact, economists say.

With cows flooding the market by ranchers who can't afford to feed them due to drought and subsequent high grain prices, hamburger meat, for example, will be cheaper in the very short term, Anderson said.

But that won't last, he said.

Texas is the nation's largest beef cow producing state, with more than five million head of cattle - and more than 90 percent of them are in the state's hardest hit counties, Anderson said.

Losses from livestock alone topped $1.2 billion in late May, including cattle that had to be sold off and the soaring price of feed.

"The long-term effect is higher prices for consumers over the next couple of years," Anderson said. "Every cow that's gone now is a cow that won't have a calf next year. Two years, three years down the road, we'll have much higher beef prices because of the drought we have now."

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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