Drought loosens grip on Texas agriculture

Randi Williams, Texas AgriLife Today

February 1, 2024

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Drought continues to linger in patches of the state, but Texas agricultural producers face much better cropping outlooks going into spring, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts. 

AgriLife Extension agronomists Jourdan Bell, Ph.D., Amarillo; Reagan Noland, Ph.D., San Angelo; and Ronnie Schnell, Ph.D., Bryan-College Station, agreed that soil moisture conditions have improved compared to last year. However, they are still concerned that cropping conditions could decline without additional timely moisture, especially in drier areas.

Around 97% of the state was experiencing some level of drought on Sept. 26, 2023, with around two-thirds of Texas mired in severe to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. As of Jan. 16, 2024, that figure had dropped to 58% of the state experiencing levels of drought with about 13% experiencing severe to extreme drought and zero areas reporting exceptional drought.

Exceptional drought is indicative of significant widespread crop and pasture losses and emergency-level water shortages in reservoirs, streams and wells.

“Ask me in a week or so after these rain systems move through,” Bell said. “Our area is projected to get 1 inch, and that would be an ideal amount to get some dry-sown wheat up and to help established fields. But we’ll definitely need more to keep the positive trend going.”

Short- and long-term weather outlook

John Nielsen-Gammon, Ph.D., Texas state climatologist and Regents Professor in the Texas A&M Department of Atmospheric Sciences, Bryan-College Station, said most of the state will receive a “good amount” of rain over the next week.

Nielsen-Gammon expects multiple storm systems could deliver drought ending moisture in areas like Central and East Texas that remain abnormally dry.

“About half the state has decent moisture, another 20% that is abnormally dry, so that leaves about one-third of the state, like Far West Texas, southern parts of the state and pockets in North and East Texas dealing with drought,” he said. “Drought in much of South Texas is related to long-term rain deficits, so for parts of the state these rains could be enough to knock that drought out, because there are a couple separate systems in the forecast. It’s just a matter of who catches conditions-altering amounts.”

The long-term outlook is not as promising, said Nielsen-Gammon. All six climate models, run by weather agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, show Texas will be drier than normal in late spring, which is the peak rainy season for most of the state.

“Having all six models forecasting the same outcome tells me there is a strong likelihood it plays out that way,” he said. “It doesn’t mean bone dry. It just means less rain than we receive during the months that rainfall typically peaks.”

Additionally, seasonal forecasts suggest summer weather patterns will be hotter and drier on average, he said.

Regional moisture, cropping conditions vary greatly

Noland said soil moisture and winter forage conditions were “OK,” but that later-planted crops like sorghum and cotton will need additional moisture to establish. He expects producers in his region to begin planting corn seeds into decent moisture within the next six weeks but suspects more rainfall will be necessary to plant other warm-season crops.

“We’re in much better shape than at this point last year because of the late fall, early winter rains,” he said. “But it’s too soon to project too much about how conditions might be by mid- to late-spring.”

San Angelo received 6.1 inches of rainfall between Oct. 1-Dec. 31, 2023, compared to the 30-year average of 4.5 inches.

Some dryland winter wheat fields around San Angelo have recently shown signs of drought stress, but temperatures have been cool enough to slow moisture losses, he said. Last year, many wheat fields were “dusted in,” or planted into dry soil.

Many fields planted in that region from October-November 2022 failed to emerge or suffered a range of issues due to too little rainfall at the right time while others’ seeds remained dormant until rainfall led to germination in February. Late emergence was a setback for grain yield potential and significant setback for grazing potential.

Noland said there is some concern that the lack of heavy rainfall events to recharge regional aquifers could translate into lower irrigation capacity for crops this summer. But heavy rains in February filled aquifers to overflow last year.

Temperatures prior to recent freezes have been above normal, he said. Noland suspects some oats and other winter crops more susceptible to freeze were likely stung by recent temperatures in the low-20s and teens, but he said winter wheat should fare well.

“I guess the El Niño can get some credit for the warmer, wetter weather, but for growers it could swing either direction depending on the weather between now and planting,” he said. 

More rain could change outlooks

Bell said the El Niño impact has been minimal in the Panhandle. Some areas have decent moisture, while others are very dry. She reported similar wheat conditions, including dry-sown fields that have yet to receive rainfall and fields that received enough moisture to germinate but then failed. Irrigated fields are variable. Irrigated wheat in the Northern Panhandle looked good, but in some areas the lack of sufficient irrigation capacity has limited winter forage production.

Much of the Panhandle received heavy rains last May with amounts ranging up to 20 inches, she said. Some areas received more than 11 inches in two hours as multiple storm systems moved through the region.

But while the flash rain events set rainfall records and created heavy runoff, Bell believes those events did not help the soil moisture profile like slower, steadier rainfall might have.

“By late August and September, a lot of our fields were dry,” she said. “The 100-plus degree days, and I just don’t think we received good subsoil moisture from previous heavy rains. We’ve received some rainfall and some snow since then, but it was very little, and we have not recorded any rainfall so far this calendar year.”

Schnell said moisture conditions in East Texas down to the coastal areas vary. Some areas in northeast and southwest parts of those regions have zero drought while central and southeastern areas are in abnormally dry to severe drought conditions, according to the drought monitor. Large swaths of Jasper, Newton and Sabine counties have moved from exceptional drought in September to extreme drought as of Jan. 16.

The forecasted rains could improve conditions in those regions, he said.

“The seven-day forecast suggests good chances of rain from Interstate 35 east and south, and hopefully those areas short on moisture can pick up some significant amounts,” he said. “That would make me a little more optimistic that things will be set up nicely for planting.”

Plan for the worst, hope for the best

Schnell said most Texas farmers should be optimistic at this point. Bell and Noland agree growers should be more optimistic than this time last year.

It would be ideal for soil moisture to improve going into planting, they said, adding they hope growers are able to take advantage of available moisture, plant as early as possible and manage their crops efficiently and effectively.

“Input prices have fallen somewhat, but so have market prices, so planning ahead to optimize fertility and control weed and insect pests to give the crop the best chance possible for yield,” Schnell said. “Last year was very dry, but areas of South and Central Texas had the best corn in years. Sometimes that drier pattern, if we get timely rains, it can change an outlook quickly.”

A map of texas with many states

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AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

CENTRAL

The region experienced consistent below-freezing temperatures, but most counties also received adequate rain, providing some drought relief. A few counties reported needing additional rain to relieve extreme drought conditions and replenish stock tanks and natural bodies of water. Native pastures were in fair condition, with some counties reporting a die-off of various weeds and trees due to extreme temperatures. There were some reports of prolific weed pressure in neglected pastures. Fieldwork halted due to freezing temperatures but was quickly back underway when the weather permitted. Wheat and oats were considered good quality, although growth has slowed, and producers expected to see some freeze damage. The carinata crop planted in early fall and into December was substantially freeze-damaged and not expected to survive. Hessian fly larvae continued to be observed in wheat varieties. Supplemental feeding was being carried out for all classes of livestock, and livestock were in fair condition.

ROLLING PLAINS

The region experienced record-level low temperatures, with areas dipping into negative digits with wind chill factors. Producers were busy thawing water or breaking ice while supplementing hay and feed for livestock. There were some reports of lost calves due to cold and predation. Yearling cattle on wheat pastures looked to be in good condition.

COASTAL BEND

Dry conditions persisted, with soil moisture remaining low. Extreme cold temperatures and wind impacted farming operations. Some fieldwork was underway in preparation for corn and rice planting. Rangeland and pastures suffered from the cold spell, which affected perennial forages. The freezing temperatures caused some cattle to lose some condition, but supplemental and hay feeding allowed them to regain their condition. The market held strong despite challenges, fostering optimism for the upcoming season.

EAST

Frigid temperatures hit the district, with some areas reporting temperatures as low as 9 degrees while others reported temperatures in the teens. The cold and ice resulted in several problems for producers. Supplemental feed and hay amounts were increased drastically, and producers were breaking ice to keep water available for their herds. Winter gardens and forages were set back by the weather as well. Several cattle markets were closed due to weather conditions.

SOUTH PLAINS

Although subsoil and topsoil conditions were on the mend, rainfall was still needed to keep that moisture for wheat growing. Producers were counting on the moisture from last week’s freeze to help grow the plants that survived. Producers were making decisions on this year’s planting season. Cattle were reported to be in good condition.

PANHANDLE

The Panhandle region remained extremely dry. Temperatures were in the single digits, with the wind chill below zero. There was no farming activity. The cold weather increased the amount of supplemental cattle feeding to help maintain body condition and meet energy requirements. Labor increased as ice had to be broken on tanks to supply water to cattle. Overall, soil conditions were reported as ranging from adequate to very poor. Pasture and rangelands were reported to be fair to very poor. Winter wheat was reported as fair to poor.

NORTH

The district experienced lower temperatures than usual last week. Topsoil moisture ranged from adequate to short. Producers were planting oats and anticipating wet conditions. Livestock producers increased supplemental and hay feeding for their herds as the lower conditions have stunted their winter conditions. 

FAR WEST

Temperatures remain below average, with nighttime temperatures dropping below 20 degrees and daytime temperatures rising to the mid-40s. The district received a slight mist and little precipitation. The strong winter storm that affected much of the state had only a brief hold on the Big Bend region, with temperatures dropping into the single digits overnight. Rangeland conditions remained steady, and soil moisture remained short to adequate. The grass was dormant, and pastures remained extremely bare except for a few winter weeds, which livestock consumed quickly. Livestock were in fair condition as producers continued supplemental and hay feeding and ensured they had access to water. Cotton has been harvested and most pecans have been harvested, although some pecan orchards were late harvesting. Ground preparation was in progress.

WEST CENTRAL

Light snow and rain were scattered across the district and accompanied by frigid temperatures, with three days below freezing. Soil conditions remained steady, but moisture was appreciated as it was received. Small grain fields were set back due to the freezing conditions. Wheat and oat pastures were struggling and in dire need of rain for cool-season annuals and native grasslands. The polar vortex challenged livestock producers who were feeding and busting ice for their livestock. Supplemental and hay feeding increased in response to the cold weather. Despite the freezing temperatures, cattle and wildlife were in decent condition.

SOUTHEAST

The arctic blast swept across the district, delaying the production of winter pastures. Producers continued supplemental and hay feeding and busting ice to ensure access to water for their cattle herds. Surface water was extremely low and affected the production of crawfish producers.

SOUTHWEST

The arctic weather blast brought temperatures below freezing for 48 hours. Light moisture was received from ice and sleet during the freeze, but it was inadequate for proper irrigation. Small grains were thriving, but winter weeds and short annual grass hindered pastures. Producers were preparing for corn and milo planting. Producers continued supplemental and hay feeding for their cattle herds. Wildlife activity increased with the cooler temperatures.

SOUTH

Freezing temperatures and a slight drizzle were received throughout the district last week. Turf producers were continuing harvest. Wheat and oat producers continued planting, and some crops have already emerged. Strawberry producers were monitoring the cold weather and loss of blooms and berries. Forage producers applied pest control around their crops and prepared fields for the spring growing season. The condition of beef cattle and wildlife decreased due to the lack of vegetation from the drought and freeze, leading producers to increase hay and supplemental feeding.

Southern Livestock

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