Recent rains greatly improved soil-moisture levels in much of the state, according to reports from Texas AgriLife Extension Service county agents.

 However, many parts of the state remained critically dry, including the Panhandle, South Plains, Far West Texas and parts of the Rolling Plains and Coastal Bend areas, according to the reports.

 The more fortunate areas experienced mild weather and timely rains – as much as 6 inches in some areas, with 1 inch to 2 inches more common. The warm weather spurred the growth of winter wheat and winter pastures. It also raised farmers' optimism in those areas for summer grazing and the planting of spring row crops.

 For fruit growers, the mild winter may not be a great blessing due to lack of chilling hours, though that remains to be seen, according to AgriLife Extension horticulturists.

 Chilling hours refers to the minimum amount of cold weather that fruit trees such as peaches need before they will blossom in the spring and produce a crop, said Keith Hansen, AgriLife Extension horticulture agent for Smith County, Tyler. The amount of chilling hours needed depends upon the variety. There are low-chilling, moderate-chilling and high-chilling varieties.

 Growers also use different ways of calculating chilling hours, and some controversy exists as to which is the more reliable indicator, Hansen said.

 One method involves counting the hours between 32 and 45 degrees, Hansen said. By this method, according to weather data collected at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Overton, the region has had 687 chilling hours.

 “We’ve got a couple of weeks before bud break, but we’re in the ballpark (by that method),” he said. “It may be a little low for some of the higher-chill varieties we have.”

 Another method is simpler to calculate, only taking the number of hours below 45 degrees into account, including temperatures below 32, Hansen said. By this method, the East Texas region has received 746 chilling hours.

 By either method, many of the varieties grown in East Texas are in fair shape, he said.

 But there is yet another way of calculating chilling hours, the Utah model, which may spell trouble for some varieties, he said. By the Utah model, the hours above about 60 degrees are subtracted from the total, Hansen said.

 “I think that may be where the concern is, with the warm weather we had in January,” he said.

 More information on chilling hours can be found at the Overton center weather website at http://etweather.tamu.edu/.