If weather cooperates in the coming weeks, Hurricane Alex's rains may actually benefit South Texas row crops that are now on the brink of harvesting, according to Texas AgriLife Extension Service personnel.
"With Alex making landfall in Mexico, we're looking at minimal crop losses here in the Rio Grande Valley, provided we go back to hot weather and fields dry out," said Dr. Ruben Saldana, an AgriLife Extension administrator.
When Alex had his sights on the mouth of the Rio Grande earlier this week, growers in the four-county Lower Rio Grande Valley were looking at possible major losses from the half-million planted acres of corn, cotton and sorghum crops that until then were producing well, he said.
"We dodged that bullet, and rains help condition the soil, but now we need things to dry out as soon as possible so growers can go in and harvest their crops," Saldana said. "And that's the forecast -- sunny and hot starting Saturday."
Before Alex's threat, only a tiny percentage of crops had failed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency.
But then Alex threatened to continue a disturbing trend in South Texas, said Dr. Luis Ribera, an AgriLife Extension economist.
"In 2008 we had losses of just over $25 million to Hurricane Dolly and last year we had losses of just over $19 million to drought," he said. "Had Alex made a direct hit here, losses could have exceeded the '08 and '09 losses combined."
Instead, Alex veered into Mexico Wednesday night, some 100 miles south of Brownsville, delivering little more than occasional gusty winds and mostly beneficial rains to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Saldana said.
In Hidalgo County, the most intensive crop-producing county of the four, Brad Cowan, an AgriLife Extension agent, said early assessments, subject to change as more information is received, are so far favorable.
"The county received 7 to 12 inches of rainfall on June 30 due to Hurricane Alex, with most everyone receiving 7 inches with heavier amounts reported in scattered areas," he said. "There are only a few isolated reports of wind damage to crops."
For many crops, including cotton, sugarcane, citrus, sunflowers, sesame and soybeans, Alex turned out to be a welcome irrigation event, Cowan said.
While all crops are "at risk" prior to harvest, Cowan said the area's sorghum crop was the most vulnerable since grain knocked to the ground by wind and rain cannot be harvested.
"Only 20 percent of the sorghum crop was harvested prior to the hurricane," he said. "Fortunately, there are few reports of sorghum leaning due to wind. There is no direct damage but the crop is still at risk if more rainfall is received in the coming days."
There was no damage to livestock, while pastures and rangeland benefited from the rains. Corn, while not as at-risk as sorghum, also needs dry weather in the coming days for harvest, he said.
In nearby Cameron County, which borders on the Gulf and includes Brownsville and South Padre Island, many fields are saturated and flooded but no crop damage as of yet, according to Dr. Enrique Perez, an AgriLife Extension county agent.
"All in all, everything went well," he said. "One farmer, south of the river near Matamoros in Mexico, told me their fields, like many of ours, are saturated but there was no damage to crops there. In fact, like here, rains were good for dry cotton fields, provided they get no more rain."
The final assessment, Saldana said, is that dry weather for the next few weeks is critical.
"There will always be low-lying areas that can't be helped," he said. "But as we start to dry out, growers will hopefully start harvesting their high ground and/or their best crops first, then move toward the low-lying fields as time permits."