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USDA Expands Drought Disaster Zones Across U.S.

In response to the widespread and intense drought that is expected to cost billions in agricultural losses and other impacts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated 50.3 percent of all U.S. counties as agricultural disaster areas, making federal assistance available to farmers in those areas.

On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack added 218 more counties in 12 states to the list of primary natural disaster areas "due to damage and losses caused by drought and excessive heat," a USDA press release said. These counties are in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming. That brings the total number of counties in the drought disaster area to 1,452 across more than two dozen states.

Flash Drought

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 66 percent of the nation's hay acreage is in an area that is experiencing drought, along with 73 percent of the country's cattle acreage. The USDA reported that as of July 29, 37 percent of U.S. soybeans were rated "very poor to poor," which matched the lowest conditions observed during the last drought of this magnitude, which occurred in 1988. In addition, 48 percent of the U.S. corn crop was rated "very poor to poor," along with 57 percent of the country's pastures and rangeland.

In addition to making federal financial assistance available to farmers and ranchers, the USDA is also opening up 3.8 million acres of lands that had been off limits to farmers for conservation purposes. This way, farmers will have access to potentially higher quality land in order to hay and graze more acres, provided they follow certain compliance rules.

"The assistance announced today will help U.S. livestock producers dealing with climbing feed prices, critical shortages of hay and deteriorating pasturelands," Vilsack said in a press release. "The Obama Administration intends to continue helping those who farm or ranch and live and work in rural America through this period of hardship."

The extreme heat this summer is helping to dry crops faster than might otherwise occur from lack of rainfall alone, with triple-digit temperatures commonplace since June across the Midwest and High Plains. Wednesday, in fact, is likely to be one of the hottest days ever recorded in Oklahoma's history, with nearly every official observing station in the state exceeding the 100°F mark.

While the drought is likely largely related to natural climate variability, including a long-lasting La Niña event that is still winding down, manmade climate change has likely made the drought worse by making the drought hotter than it otherwise would be. This dynamic occurred during the 2011 Texas drought and heat wave, which cost farmers and ranchers in that state billions in losses.