Severe winter conditions across the U.S. south this month left hundreds of thousands of chickens dead and froze groves of fruit, pushing the episode’s estimated cost to farmers and agriculture companies into the hundreds of millions of dollars, industry officials said.
Crop and livestock producers are still tallying the steep cost in animal and plant life after days of snow and record-low temperatures gripped parts of Texas and other southern U.S. states. The resulting draw on power and natural gas supplies forced closures of plants that manufactured animal feed and processed milk, creating a calamity for a major meat- and fruit-producing region.
Sanderson Farms Inc.
said Thursday it had euthanized 545,000 chicks in Texas that couldn’t be shipped to farms from hatcheries due to hazardous road conditions. Chief Executive
said another 455,000 chickens died due to frigid temperatures, shortages in water and feed, and collapsed buildings on farms. Another 703,000 hatching eggs were lost, he said.
“We deeply regret the losses incurred due to extraordinary circumstances,” Mr. Sanderson said on a conference call Thursday.
For Texas orange and grapefruit growers, who represent the third-largest citrus growing state, the wintry blast’s timing was catastrophic. The bitter cold likely destroyed 98% of the current Valencia orange crop and 55% of grapefruit, according to Dale Murden, a citrus grower and president of Texas Citrus Mutual, a farmer organization.
Mr. Murden said that those losses likely total about $78 million. But the bitter chill also killed off many trees’ new blooms, likely destroying three-quarters of the next crop and amounting to another $225 million in damage, according to Texas Citrus estimates.
“I have two crops on the tree that are basically dead,” Mr. Murden said.
Agricultural losses prompted
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
to request a disaster designation last week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and let Texan farmers tap emergency loans and other aid.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has estimated that weather-driven losses to the state’s farm sector could exceed $500 million. Dairy producers in Texas were set to lose $30 million to $40 million after dumping around 14 million gallons of milk on fields, Mr. Miller said, with plants unable to process milk after losing access to natural gas.
Dairy farmers have also lost livestock to the cold. Mr. Miller said that on one Texas dairy farm, the cold left milk cows with frostbitten udders, prompting the farmer to sell them to be slaughtered for beef. In Oklahoma, about 15% of newborn calves were lost to the cold, according to estimates by the state agriculture department.
While insurance may cover some losses, Mr. Murden, the citrus producer, said some weather-struck growers may opt to leave farming. From the time an orange or grapefruit tree is planted, he said, five years may pass before it bears enough fruit to produce a steady income.
“Insurance was never designed to make you whole after a disaster like this,” Mr. Murden said.
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