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Texas beef counties may lie in Rita's path

/ Source: The Associated Press

There is bad news for beef producers but some relatively good news for cotton and rice growers in the path of Hurricane Rita.

"That's big cattle country there," Agriculture Department meteorologist Brad Rippey said Thursday. Most of the counties stretching from the middle of the Texas Gulf Coast to Louisiana are involved heavily in beef production, Rippey said.

"They've got a couple days of warning, at the very least. I think producers are going to try to get livestock to the highest ground on their property," he said.

Rita remained a major Category 4 storm Thursday as it moved west-northwest across the Gulf of Mexico. Landfall was predicted for late Friday or early Saturday in Louisiana or Texas.

Like Katrina, Rita could batter a major shipping outlet for farm exports. The Port of Galveston, south of Houston, handles much of the hard red winter wheat grown in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas that is sold to foreign customers.

Harvest ended in June and July, but shipping picked up recently because wet weather has delayed Canada's harvest, and demand has increased from Iraq and Nigeria, said Dan Cekander, director of grain research for the brokerage firm Fimat.

Cekander said that with southern Louisiana on alert for Rita, evacuations might slow shipping from the Port of New Orleans, still recovering from Katrina.

New Orleans is the biggest port for agriculture shipments, handling more than half the country's grain exports, mostly corn and soybeans.

Katrina hit hardest in eastern Louisiana, but sugarcane in southwest Louisiana could be flattened if Rita strikes there. Katrina reduced sugarcane production by 9 percent in Louisiana. The state would have accounted for about 1.5 percent of U.S. sugar production, the Agriculture Department said this week.

The situation is less precarious for two other Texas commodities, cotton and rice. Most crops in the Texas coastal bend have already been harvested, Rippey said.

The department's estimate of Katrina-related farm losses was $900 million, not counting long-term losses such as damage to farm buildings and equipment, power losses and fuel shortages.