Rangeland conditions vary across state based on moisture, precipitation outlook

Sarah Fuller, Texas. AgriLife Today

June 10, 2024

Rangeland conditions across the state vary as producers contend with an abundance of precipitation in the east and little, if any, in the west, according to experts with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

Texas is home to roughly 100 million acres of grazing lands, which include native rangelands and non-native pastures.

Non-native pastures are typically monocultures comprised of introduced species such as Bermuda grass. Conversely, native rangelands are a diverse ecosystem of native grasses and forbs that support livestock like cattle, sheep and goats, as well as wildlife such as white-tailed deer, pronghorn, turkey and more.

This makes rangelands — the largest native cover type in the state — both an ecological and economic powerhouse.   

Precipitation a major factor in forage production

While a multitude of factors play a role in sustaining rangeland health, precipitation is the most critical factor for forage production.

“Thanks to the rain we’ve received this season, rangelands in our part of the world are going to grow a lot of grass,” said Jeff Goodwin, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management and director of the Texas A&M Center for Grazinglands and Ranch Management, Bryan-College Station. “I would say everyone east of Interstate 35 is in pretty good shape.”

The same can’t be said for western and some northern portions of the state that have been dealing with abnormally dry conditions, varying stages of drought and triple-digit temperatures for multiple years.

Roughly 47% of the state is dealing with some level of drought, ranging from moderate to pockets of extreme, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Morgan Treadwell, Ph.D., Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management associate professor and AgriLife Extension rangeland specialist, San Angelo, said she is trying to remain hopeful but also encouraging producers to plan for potentially worsening conditions.

“The forage we have available now is likely what we’re going to have to work with for the growing season,” Treadwell said. “At this point, we can’t run our rangeland pastures with the assumption we will eventually get rain and conditions will improve.”

A major factor guiding Treadwell’s outlook is the La Niña climate pattern meteorologists predict will emerge later this summer.

Originating in the Pacific Ocean, both La Niña and El Niño are climate patterns that impact the weather worldwide. While El Niño typically results in cooler, wetter weather patterns for much of Texas, La Niña is characterized by warmer, drier conditions.

Implementing proactive measures

Moving forward, Treadwell said producers should relieve grazing pressure to prevent compromising rangeland health.

“We need to make sure we’re rotating our animals and that we’re incorporating ample pasture rest into our grazing system,” she said. “If we can’t provide enough rest for what these conditions are requiring, then we have to assess the number of animals in our herd and really start to think about reducing stocking rates.”

Treadwell said while she knows producers want to maintain their cattle numbers, the cattle market is currently in a positive place, which should help.

“If you don’t have the grass, it is simply not worth holding on to your cattle and deteriorating the overall range condition past the point of recovery,” Treadwell said.

Adaptive land management

In addition to reassessing one’s herd size, Treadwell said it may also be time to reevaluate land management techniques implemented this season.

For example, while prescribed fire plays a critical role in maintaining rangeland health through nutrient cycling, promoting forage production, managing invasive species and curbing woody encroachment, many producers may choose to forego the practice this year to conserve what little forage they have.

“Growing-season burns are exceptionally effective,” Treadwell said. “But, right now, prescribed fire is probably on the back burner for producers out west just because we are so limited in the fine fuel and herbaceous components of our rangelands.”

While some vegetation may struggle in the arid conditions, Treadwell said many woody species will thrive.

“Honey mesquite and redberry juniper love a good drought,” she said. “They put all their energy into root development so they’re able to tap into reserves and nutrients that aren’t normally found during these limiting times of the year.”

Belowground root development is also reflected in aboveground biomass production, which exhibits unique adaptations to survive drought. 

“As a drought persists, many woody species that are the target of management concern also start to develop waxy, impenetrable layers on their leaf surface, preventing herbicide from being absorbed and transmitted throughout the plant,” Treadwell said.

Because of this, Treadwell said stem spray and basal spray applications of herbicide during drought to individual woody plants are more effective at controlling spread than aerial or broadcast treatments.

Positive conditions no excuse for complacency

Goodwin said producers in the eastern half of the state should not be complacent with good grazing conditions — especially considering the region is just emerging from two years of moderate to exceptional drought.

“Just because it rains doesn’t mean the land has recovered,” he said. “In areas hit hard from the past two dry years, you might need a growing season or two of consistent moisture to fully recover.

“The trouble is we don’t ranch in a world with much consistency — we operate with uncertainty every day — that’s why having a contingency plan and implementing it is so important. We need to be thinking about the next drought when it’s raining.”

Goodwin said ensuring herds are at the proper stocking rate is also critical to prevent overgrazing, exposed bare soil and subsequent ecological degradation.

This cautious approach should also be applied to rangelands recovering from this year’s Panhandle wildfires.

Both Goodwin and Treadwell said they have received positive reports of forage recovery and growth in the areas hardest hit by wildfire. But native pasture green-up doesn’t mean they are ready to support a herd.

“Now is the time to let the grass recover,” Goodwin said. “If your cows are still being pastured somewhere else that wasn’t hit, don’t turn them back in the first time you see some green forage. Allow the land to recover first.”

AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

A map of the state of Texas divided into the 12 AgriLife Extension districts.

Central

Some areas in the district received up to 5 inches of rain and experienced hot, humid conditions. Pastures and fields were in good condition with some producers able to cut hay and plant cotton. Corn remained in good condition despite excess soil moisture. Cattle markets were strong. 

Rolling Plains

The wheat harvest was in full swing last week. Most areas in the district reported good crop yields, but some low-lying areas were still waiting to be harvested due to muddy conditions. Producers began planting cotton. Pasture and range conditions were good, and cattle fared well. Mature cattle looked well, and calves were adding good weight.

Coastal Bend

The district continued to experience very hot, dry conditions. Corn and grain sorghum were in their late stages and maturing rapidly. Some corn was showing signs of stress, including less than desirable ear length. Many cotton plants looked good, but the hot, dry conditions were beginning to impact them. Producers began spraying cotton for fleahoppers and stinkbugs. Rice fields were beginning to go under flood irrigation. Range and pasture conditions continued to decline, and hay production was falling short of normal levels. Livestock conditions were good, but some livestock required supplementation due to the deteriorating forage conditions.

East

High winds were reported across the district, including a tornado in Smith County. The damage was widespread and included downed trees, damaged fences, roofs and/or barns. The rainfall kept soil in most areas thoroughly saturated, and Shelby County reported flooding in low-lying areas. Pasture conditions were good, and soil moisture ranged from adequate to surplus, with a surplus in sub-soil moisture. There were weeds also reported in hay meadows and pastures.

Southeast

Soil moisture levels were adequate to surplus. The rain continued to fall across the district with many fields still saturated. Temperatures began to rise with heat indices in most areas rising into the triple digits. Producers in Waller County expected corn yield losses from last week’s storm. Cotton producers began fertilizing their crops, but weed spraying was delayed due to the wet conditions. Grasshopper activity was reported by producers. Rice planting continued to be delayed. Rangeland and pasture conditions ranged from very poor to excellent. Ryegrass conditions declined, but hay was being cut, and yields looked good in most areas. Cattle looked good with calf prices rising slightly.

South Plains

Conditions were warmer with high winds, which dried out much of the moisture received. Farmers were busy planting corn, cotton and sorghum, and pastures looked good around most areas. Wheatlage and hay harvests wrapped up. Winter peas have also been harvested. Cattle were in good condition.

Panhandle

The district remained hot and dry. Overall soil moisture levels ranged from poor to good. Wheat was beginning to mature at a rapid rate, with harvest likely to begin in 10-14 days. Corn planting was nearing completion, and grain sorghum planting was in the beginning stages. Pasture and range conditions were poor to fair. Livestock were being moved to graze out wheat, and supplemental feeding for cattle was unnecessary.

North

Temperatures in the district were hot, while topsoil and subsoil moisture levels were adequate to surplus. Some counties reported up to 3 inches of rainfall, resulting in some producers being unable to work in their fields. There were reports of high populations of nuisance flies and mosquitoes with chiggers and ticks emerging. There were also some reports of horseflies on larger livestock in some areas. Aphids were also present and could be a problem on organic crops, especially vegetables and rosaceous fruits. Stone fruits, squashes and vine fruits were growing well, with cool season crops in their final harvest. Pastures were fair to good with some areas reporting excellent conditions. The first cuts of ryegrass were baled but hay quality suffered due to delayed harvest. Livestock herds benefited from the ample pasture moisture.

Far West

The district reported average temperatures in the 70s for lows and 100s for highs. Cotton planting made good progress and producers worked to take advantage of the moisture. Fields were beginning to emerge with the warm weather; however, topsoil was quickly drying, and many growers were still planting into dry soil. Corn, sorghum and melons made good progress following the recent rain. Grasshoppers were being reported in the eastern part of the district and were moving into the cotton fields from pastures. Pecans were pollinating and leafing out. Ranchers continued to reduce their herds because of the drought, but livestock conditions ranged from fair to good. Supplemental livestock feeding continued.

West Central

The district reported high temperatures ranging from the low 80s to the high 90s with rainfall averaging from trace amounts to 6 inches. There were reports of hail damage to vehicles in one county. Small grains, wheat and oats were being harvested and Coastal Bermuda grass fields were being cut for hay in most areas. Wheat yields fared well, with amounts averaging more than 30 bushels or higher per acre in some areas. Corn was being planted, and emerged fields were doing well. Cotton planting was underway. Insect problems were increasing in most areas. Pasture conditions ranged from fair to good with livestock conditions looking good. Cattle continued to look good as pastures were still growing strong.

Southwest

The district reported little to no rainfall as hot temperatures settled in. There were reports of storms that caused some wind damage to trees and buildings in one county. Corn and sorghum looked good but were starting to show signs of stress due to the hot, dry conditions. Row crops looked excellent with wheat and oats showing strong harvest yields. Hay was being rolled up and looked good. There were some reports of desert termites and grasshoppers with vegetation on rangelands being affected. Livestock and wildlife conditions were improving.

South

Temperatures in the district ranged from very warm to hot with most areas receiving trace amounts of rainfall up to 3 inches. Corn and grain sorghum fared well in most areas, but some producers expected yield losses due to dry conditions. Cotton crops in most areas were doing well with small bolls or the flowering stage in some fields. Dryland cotton was suffering and showing signs of stress. Sesame was doing well despite hot temperatures, and the strawberry harvest was wrapping up. Pasture and range conditions were poor to good, with soil conditions worsening. Hay looked good with producers beginning to cut and bale in most areas. Livestock conditions ranged from poor to good, with supplementation becoming more common in some areas. Cattle looked good, and prices remained strong.  

Southern Livestock

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