A deluge of saltwater from Hurricane Ike that ravaged the southeast Texas Gulf Coast has left some ranchers little options for wintering cattle, according to Texas AgriLife Extension Service experts.

A team of AgriLife Extension specialists have been evaluating Chambers, Jefferson and Orange counties, finding increased salinity levels in soils that may not support any winter pasture growth.

“Certainly not without substantial rainfall,” said Dr. Larry Redmon, AgriLife Extension state forage specialist. “Although some of the Bermuda grass fields that have been inundated for 24 to 48 hours had green leaf material remaining, without timely precipitation in the near future, even Bermuda grass may have a difficult time surviving.”

Besides the negative effect of submerging forages for a prolonged period of time, Redmon said, it creates a “simulated drought effect” in the soil causing plants to wither and die.

“Too much salt, or more precisely, the sodium in the salt, can cause the soil particles to disperse, thus sealing the soil surface and reducing water infiltration rates,” he said.

Soil salinity levels measured in the storm surge area were at levels more than double the maximum accepted rate in some areas for many winter forage crops, including ryegrass, wheat and oats, according to the data.

AgriLife Extension officials are advising producers interested in fall and winter pasture grazing to send a soil sample for salinity analysis immediately. AgriLife Extension's Soil, Water and Forage Testing Lab has developed an emergency, discounted soil-salinity testing service in light of the devastation to the upper Texas coastal area.

“If you have additional questions regarding the soil-testing service, contact your local AgriLife Extension county agent for additional details on how to get a soil sample, submittal form and for help interpreting the analyses,” Redmon said.

County agents also have copies of an emergency fact sheet developed to help producers understand how salinity levels affect forage production and which forages have a higher tolerance to soil salinity, he said.

The following agents may be contacted in these counties:

- Chambers County: Tyler Fitzgerald, 409-267-8347.

- Jefferson County: Kelby Boldt, 409-835-8461.

- Orange County: Roy Stanford, 409-882-7010.