Texas citrus continues to bounce back from freeze

Adam Russell, Texas AgriLife Today

September 1, 2023

Texas citrus growers appear to be back on track after Winter Storm Uri caused significant setbacks to many growers two seasons ago, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert.

      Before Winter Storm Uri delivered week-long ice and sub-freezing temperatures to much of the state in February 2021, Texas citrus growers had around 27,000 acres of grapefruit and orange trees in production. Citrus trees’ lack of cold hardiness limits their production to the mildest parts of the southern U.S. like South Texas, Florida, Arizona and California.

      Despite citrus production losses to the storm, Juan Anciso, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension horticulturist, Weslaco, said he was pleasantly surprised that the industry was faring much better than he expected. Weeks and months after the storm, he worried growers might face losses similar to a freeze in 1989 when 12,000 acres of the state’s 36,000 acres, 67% of production, was lost.

      Anciso estimates Winter Storm Uri killed or damaged around 10% of the trees, and around 24,000 acres remain in production.

      “We do know from grower input that 3,000-4,000 acres were lost or damaged, and I feel like that is a surprisingly low number because temperatures were down to 19 degrees in many areas,” he said. “Maybe it wasn’t that cold long enough to do the damage I expected, but I was delighted to be wrong.”

Texas citrus shows signs of recovery

      Anciso said there are still signs of limb damage and trees that have struggled to recover, but fruit sets have gotten progressively better from those trees. He was surprised some trees fruited in fall 2021, and that 2022 was even better.

      “Have they totally recovered? No,” he said. “But we are getting surprisingly good production from survivors, and fruit growth in some areas seems to be back on track with pre-storm production.”

      The 2023 crop looks very good, he said, but pest and disease pressure were heavier in some locations. Growers have been proactively treating rust mites, which can hurt tree productivity, as well as the fungal disease melanose, which forms on dead limbs.

      Much of the post-storm tree rehabilitation involved removing dead wood to reduce the risk of melanose infestations, which can cause severe damage for commercial citrus crops, Anciso said. Melanose is a fungal disease that can spread throughout a tree from young or dead twigs. It is especially common following freezes and fueled by humid conditions.

      Water is one concern for producers as fruit continues to mature on trees, Anciso said. All commercial citrus acres are irrigated, mostly via flooding with a canal system from the Rio Grande River and some drip irrigation from other sources.

      However, the water allotments for agriculture from Lake Amistad and Falcon Lake are nearing a stopping point unless the watershed that feeds those lakes receives rainfall soon. Both lakes are at around 25% capacity, and water is cut off to agriculture when levels reach 17%.

      Most water districts constantly reevaluate allotments, and Anciso said farmers are hoping for late-August and September rains to feed both reservoirs. Most orchards are flooded with 4-6 inches of water from the canals, which would be enough water to fuel tree productivity for a month under current conditions.

      Without rain or irrigation into October, fruit sizes are likely to be impacted by the lack of water, he said.

      “We’re getting closer to the point that if it gets severe, the fruit will be on the smaller side,” he said.

Hoping for a strong finish

      Anciso hopes the citrus season finishes strong because the market has been good for growers in recent years. Supplies of Texas grapefruit and oranges have been low, and demand has been high.

      About 70% of citrus acres are dedicated to grapefruits, with the remaining 30% producing oranges, he said. There are also a limited number of acres dedicated to Persian limes and Meyer lemons, but they only amount to around 100 acres total.

      Texas grapefruits are known for their redder flesh and milder taste compared to grapefruit from Florida and Arizona.

      “It’s still a grapefruit, but it’s a noticeable difference in color and taste,” he said. “Texas has the premium grapefruit in the U.S., and buyers know that it is important to have them on their shelves.”

      Texas oranges are similarly in demand, he said. They tend to be wind-scarred, which makes them less aesthetically pleasing compared to California or Florida oranges, but they are known for their thinner rinds and juicier flesh.

      Anciso said a continuation of good prices would help citrus growers continue their recovery and cover the higher input costs related to production. He estimates input costs for everything from chemicals and diesel to parts for equipment were up 30% compared to last year.

      Labor continues to be a higher cost as well, but labor shortages can be even costlier. Most citrus is still hand-harvested, and growers are now increasingly turning to H2A temporary agriculture workers from Mexico to bring in their crops.

      “H2A workers are very costly to growers, and it’s a complex system, but they are finding that it is more efficient and a reliable way to avoid labor shortages at the most critical time,” he said. “I think growers want to maintain this positive momentum. Some of those acres lost may never return to citrus, but I am pleasantly surprised by how fast we’ve rebounded.”

AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

A map of the 12 Texas A&M AgriLife Extension districts.

CENTRAL

      Most of the district reached over 60 consecutive days of daytime temperatures above 100 degrees. Stock tanks were near depletion, and creek beds were at lower-than-normal levels. No rainfall is expected through the end of the month. There were some grass, wildfire and haybarn fires, especially on red flag days. Rangelands were burnt up, and grasses were showing drought stress. Trees showed sun scorching and drought stress. Northeast counties continued with their corn harvest and haying while the rest of the district wrapped up. The cotton crop deteriorated, and less than one bale yield per acre was expected. Livestock diets were supplemented, and cattle were in fair condition, but heavily culled. Some swine producers invested in mist systems. Water availability impacted wildlife routines and placed them in areas frequented by traffic.

ROLLING PLAINS

      Widespread drought conditions continued. All counties were dry and experienced worsening conditions under the prolonged heat. There was increasing concern over wildfires as an ample fuel load was available for fires to spread quickly. Grasshoppers were consuming anything that was still green. Cotton deteriorated and was on course to a disastrous or extremely subpar crop yield. Pastures had dried up, and most farmers and ranchers fed their cattle supplemental feed and hay. Producers were facing hard decisions regarding feeding hay or selling off cattle.

COASTAL BEND

      Hot and dry weather conditions prevailed. A small band of showers reportedly dropped a half inch to 1 inch of rain on the far northwest corner of Nueces County. Cotton and rice harvest were well underway. Cotton yields had some reports of over two bales per acre, but most were just over one bale. Some late-planted acres of cotton were likely to be zeroed out and not harvested. There were corn delays due to a shortage of available grain storage, yet the corn harvest was nearly 100% complete. Other fieldwork was underway with disking and stalk cutting. Pastures dried up and cattle producers were concerned about this winter due to minimal hay supplies. Producers were securing alternative sources of forage, including corn stalks, sorghum stalks and rice stubble. Keeping livestock hydrated was a significant concern as ponds continued to dry up. Livestock prices remained firm at auctions.  

EAST

      Drought conditions persisted if not worsened, with no rain and extreme heat. Pasture and rangeland conditions were poor to very poor. Subsoil and topsoil conditions were very short. Forages were very dry and no longer growing. Hay production in most areas had halted. Marion County reported producers were getting their last cutting of hay. Other counties had producers searching for hay to purchase. Culling of herds continued, with some selling out ultimately. Cattle markets remained steady to higher in most classes. Slaughter prices were lower. Livestock were in fair to good condition, with some supplementation taking place. Wild pig damage was reported.

SOUTH PLAINS

      Triple-digit temperatures and lack of rainfall caused a lot of stress on remaining crops and burned off any grass available for cattle. Irrigation systems were unable to keep up during peak water use. Pests were present in all crops, but most were beneficial, keeping the fields from the economic threshold. Cotton was stressed and most plants were not holding their bolls due to the lack of rainfall. Grain sorghum was very poor looking in dryland but somewhat better under irrigation. Other crops, such as corn and peanuts, were in fair to poor condition.

PANHANDLE

      Conditions were extremely hot and dry, with daytime temperatures over 100 degrees. The extreme heat dried pastures and rangeland to the point wildfires were a significant concern. Irrigated crops looked good, but some producers were running out of water and forced to shut off wells. Others continued pumping as much as possible in hopes they could keep this crop going. Livestock were in fair condition with supplemental feeding on a large scale. Producers who had hay bailed for the winter started feeding it as quickly as it came out of the fields. Most counties reported short to very short subsoil and topsoil moisture. The overall condition of pastures and rangeland was poor to fair. Overall, crops were reported to be in good to fair condition. 

NORTH

      Pastures and rangeland were reported as poor to very poor. All county topsoil moisture was between short to very short due to extreme heat. Within the past 45-plus days, drought conditions had devastated crops and pastures. The temperatures throughout the district remained in the triple digits over the past week with little to low wind. Lack of moisture has decreased hay production, corn, soybeans, sorghum and cotton. Livestock conditions were good. There were no significant diseases or insect pests. Some nuisance flies were present. 

FAR WEST

      In the lower elevations, the weather continued to be dry and hot. The daytime temperatures ranged in the mid- to upper 90s, with overnights in the low to mid-70s. Without any rainfall, there was a decrease in soil moisture levels and pasture conditions. All crop conditions continued to decline. Extreme heat and winds made corn yields much lower than anticipated. Sorghum harvest began and producers were still expecting a decent crop. Cotton matured very quickly due to the heat, with a few fields starting to show open bolls despite the bolls not being fully mature. Harvest was expected to come early this year. Many farmers were plowing under drought and heat-stressed cotton. Melon harvest was winding down, with most likely only a week or two left. Pecans were looking good this year with a decent tree load. Cattle continued to be supplementally fed, and their condition was holding up well despite supplemental feeding for the past two years. Pastures were grazed entirely out. Livestock producers were forced to feed or supplement their livestock, but many producers sold their livestock at a very high price. The region severely needed rain to improve soil moisture and range conditions. 

WEST CENTRAL

      Hot and dry conditions persisted, with high temperatures in the triple digits and little precipitation. Cotton conditions were deteriorating due to limited water. Forage sorghum and hay crops were in poor to fair condition. Wildfire concerns continued as a few occurred in the area. Insect problems continued, especially grasshoppers. Stock tank levels continued to decrease, and smaller tanks dried up. Livestock producers started hay and supplemental feeding due to the lack of pasture and rangeland grass.

SOUTHEAST

      Severe drought conditions occurred across the district with daytime temperatures frequently above 100 degrees. Rice was being harvested, and many farmers cut and bailed rice straw to assist in the potential lack of hay this winter. Soil moisture was short, and so was forage. Cattle producers were feeding hay or other supplements to their livestock. Drought conditions led to a higher-than-normal drive of cattle to the sale barns. There was an initial loss of trees and surface water. Rangeland and pasture ratings varied from excellent to very poor.

SOUTHWEST

      Extremely hot and dry conditions persisted with no measurable rain. The extreme heat continued to pose problems. Rangeland and pasture conditions continued to dry out and turn brown across the areas. All corn and grain sorghum were harvested north of Elgin, and the remaining corn stalks were baled for straw. Corn harvest continued and was nearing completion, with average to good yields reported. The grasshopper load on pastures continued to be high. Wildfire concerns continued as small fires were popping up around the district. Livestock was holding up well with large-scale supplemental feeding. Cattle markets were holding strong; however, sheep and goat prices were down. Producers started selling cows as hay prices elevated to around $100-plus per bale. Wildlife were still in fair shape.

SOUTH

      Pastures remained in fair to poor condition as the extreme heat and lack of moisture took their toll. Intense heat and high winds dominated all week in Hidalgo County. A few producers planted fall corn on pre-irrigated ground. Approximately 60% of the cotton in the county was harvested, and yield reports were mixed. The sesame harvest continued. Some vegetable farmers planted cabbage, and some of this had emerged. Hay was exchanging hands and getting more expensive and harder to find. Hay farmers with irrigation were fertilizing and watering quickly to get another cutting. The white-tailed fawn crop and the bobwhite quail crop looked good. Large flocks of white-winged dove were seen, and the upcoming hunting season was looking promising. Mesquite beans were abundant, and wildlife used them as a feed source. Cattle producers culled some of their older cows and sold calves to take advantage of the high prices and make room for the remaining herd. High temperatures and dry wind gusts continued, robbing soil moisture. Rangeland and pastures were in desperate need of rainfall. Trees across the county were suffering. Dirt work was started for strawberry production, but the dry weather has made it almost impossible to begin.

Southern Livestock

More News

Weighing the Market

Weighing the market

Heavier carcasses weigh on prices Cash calf and feeder cattle prices returned to near-record levels in May as ...
Cover Story

Registration opens for 70th annual Texas A&M Beef Cattle Short Course

The 70th annual Texas A&M Beef Cattle Short Course on Aug. 5-7 in Bryan-College Station is open for registration. The ...
Crop and Weather

Rangeland conditions vary across state based on moisture, precipitation outlook

Rangeland conditions across the state vary as producers contend with an abundance of precipitation in the east and ...
Cover Story

Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Corpus Christi celebrates 50 years serving Coastal Bend

From cotton boll weevil eradication to aquaculture genomics to advancing digital agriculture and artificial intelligence, the Texas A&M AgriLife ...
Columnists

Texas Side of Things

Although the calendar claims that the first day of summer is officially June 20th, I personally feel like ...
DC News

Two Farm Bill proposals boost reference prices

LITTLE ROCK — Despite their differences, the Farm Bill proposals led by U.S. Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson and ...