Rain over larges areas of Texas leading up to the Thanksgiving weekend have farmers and ranchers hoping for relief from the worst drought on record, but Texas’ state climatologist is warning much more rain is needed before any lasting benefit can be realized.  

“Rains over the last week are a good start, but deep soil moisture remains low and if we don’t get rain like this every three weeks or so it is going to do little to help relieve widespread drought conditions,” says State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon. “There may be a short term benefit from the latest rain, but I don’t see any easing of drought conditions unless we get more substantial rain soon, and that may not happen until we see a lifting of La Niña conditions in late spring.”

Nielson-Gammon says even frequent winter rains, while needed, may not break drought conditions because moisture in soils will dry quicker during winter conditions.

“The problem is deep soil moisture. Steady, soaking rains are needed before we begin to realize a substantial benefit, and it appears our weather will be influenced by La Niña throughout the winter season and well into the spring,” Nielson-Gammon says, warning warm-season perennials will be dormant as cooler temperatures set in and they won’t begin to re-appear until spring.

“Rain now will help winter pastures, but spring forage is the key to bringing lasting relief to the distressed livestock issue.”

In Central Texas, livestock producers have planted small grains for forage including wheat and oats, and recent rains have been enough to sustain the emerging crop. But Texas AgriLife extension agent J.J. Kidd in Menard County says more rain is needed soon if winter forage crops are to survive. Kidd says water in the San Saba River has stopped flowing and he reports a number of shallow wells have stopped pumping water.

“This drought is worse than the drought of the 1950s because we have received less rain than they did back then, and the extreme heat of last summer robbed us of subsoil moisture. Nothing will help us at this point except substantial rain.”

Kidd says while livestock producers are hard hit by the drought, sheep and goat producers are also feeling the pinch. At one time the area produced a lot of sheep and goats, but between the drought and the economy those numbers have declined drastically over the last ten years.

“It’s a real concern in our area because a lot of our producers are retired, many in their 70s, so once the drought breaks, rebuilding herds may not happen because some of these folks may decide not to get back into it again. That’s what I’m hearing,” Kidd says.

In East Texas, Dr. Vanessa Corriher, Texas AgriLife extension forage specialist, says she doesn’t expect to see any substantial forage relief until spring.  She says winter pastures planted with ryegrass or legumes may benefit from recent rains but warns producers are reluctant to apply fertilizers or nitrogen because they don’t know when the next rains will fall. 

In the Coastal Bend region high winds and warm temperatures are keeping soils dry and many producers have opted not to plant small grains. In the Panhandle, wheat is being planted but rangeland and pastures are reported in poor condition. Some stocker cattle have been placed on wheat but some herds have been liquidated.

Out West trace moisture is being reported but conditions are so dry that wild dogs are preying on sheep and goat herds in Ward County while more cattle are being shipped out-of-state for pasturing. In both the West and across the rolling Texas plains wildfires remain a threat as dry, dusty conditions prevail. Ranchers continue supplemental feeding when and where hay is available.

In South Texas recent rains have helped to restore some soil moisture and there has been some recovery to livestock ponds. Dryland oats and wheat fields received substantial rain in Zavala County where water standing in the fields was reported late last week.

“It’s going to be a hit and miss winter when it comes to needed moisture, and regardless how much it rains across the state this winter, the real test will come after spring planting. The forecast is calling for continued dry conditions and a colder winter and I think our only hope is for La Niña to fade away allowing for more favorable conditions across the South and Southwest. Until then all we can do is hope for the best,” added Nielson-Gammon.