Talking like the advisor he has been through his many years of service, Stapper spent his waning time sharing drought tips and solutions to the drought at the very end of his Extension career.

“It may be optimistic to think that we are one day closer to a good rain,” he suggested in his latest and possibly last weekly column as an extension agent. “Rainfall is the major limiting factor to production potential.”

Stapper warned that technology, for all of its contributions, cannot turn on water from the sky. He says we have to look at management tools that can improve the effectiveness of rainfall events when they occur.

“Research has shown that the amount of rainfall runoff from a particular range site is directly related to vegetation on the site.  Generally speaking, sites that are dominated with plants that provide good ground cover hold rainfall the best.  In contrast, sodgrasses or bare ground do not provide sufficient plant litter cover to allow for effective infiltration… [as a result] we see heavy runoff and soil loss.”

He warns that evaporation is another source of water loss on rangeland. The amount of water lost through evaporation from the plant canopies or soil surface is related to the intensity of the rainfall event and the weather conditions that follow.

“We know that not all plants found on our rangelands are desirable for livestock and wildlife production.  Brush or toxic and /or noxious weeds deplete water that could be used for more desirable species. But we can do some things to help improve rainfall effects.”

  1. Reduce runoff -- this can represent a serious loss of water from the ranch.  Research indicates that rangeland infiltration rates generally increase as total plant cover increases. The plant cover slows the water movement across the soil surface allowing more time for water to infiltrate before being lost down creeks and draws. Plant cover also protects the soil surface from rain drop splash. Vegetation type also affects runoff. Bunchgrasses are more effective at reducing runoff than sodgrasses, while oak mottes produce even less runoff. Livestock stocking rates, grazing systems, and species of livestock are all major management tools that can be used to manage the range forage base.
  2. Reducing the undesirable weed and brush species -- It has been estimated that mesquite uses 100 gallons of water for each pound of above ground plant growth produced. Perennial grasses are more efficient users of water requiring from 40 to 75 gallons of water for each pound of above -ground biomass produced. The amount of water used by unwanted plants can vary greatly from ranch to ranch depending on the species of plants present and their density. Having a plan to manage these undesirable plants can help improve the efficiency of water use for livestock and wildlife.
  3. The harvest of vegetation by livestock must be limited to ensure regrowth and reproduction of perennial range vegetation. An old rule of thumb: 50 percent of forage should be left standing for health of the plant; 25 percent will be lost to trampling, weathering, or consumption by insects and small mammals, which leaves only 25 percent that is actually consumed by livestock.

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“Bottom line, rainfall represents the single most limiting factor to livestock production on Texas rangelands.  We have done the best job possible at managing these range sites so that when we are blessed with a rainfall event, our rangelands can take full advantage of that precious water resource and keep it on site, store in the soil profile, for the dry times that will come again,” Stapper says.

South Texas agriculture will miss Jeff Stapper - as a county agent and as a friend. And Stapper says he will miss South Texas and the friends and associations he has made.

“But I’ll make it back down from time to time and I won’t really be all that far away,” he says.