Cotton and sorghum growers in the Coastal Bend are concerned about low subsoil moisture levels and the prospect for needed rain this spring, but that hasn’t stopped most from starting the process of getting this year’s crop in the ground.

“This area is traditionally number one in the state for grain sorghum production and last year’s drought wasn’t as bad for us as it was for others because we started the year with a lot of moisture in the ground. But this year, as it stands now, we’re about 15 inches of rain short of where we would like to be in terms of soil moisture. Without it the prospects of a good crop year are not promising,” reports Nueces County Extension Agent Jeff Stapper.

He says recent core samples indicate there is enough soil moisture to start a crop this year, but without substantial rain in the spring, dry land crops will suffer and yields will falter.

“We were fortunate to receive from 4 to 6 inches of rain in February, but core samples indicate soil moisture is at about 50 to 70 percent of capacity, and while that doesn’t sound so bad, it is a clear indication that more rain will be needed soon for a young crop to thrive,” he adds.

Many producers in Nueces County rotate cotton and grain sorghum, and like most everywhere in drought-stricken Texas, concerns for adequate rainfall is the number one issue on growers’ minds.

Alternate crops

A few growers, however, are looking hard at drought-tolerant alternatives. Leading the options are sunflowers, sesame and new interest in guar. The later is gaining popularity as it is widely used in hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil extraction from shale deposits.

“And sesame particularly has gained interest among growers in the Coastal Bend. There is high demand for U.S. sesame now with buyers from Japan, for example, looking at U.S. sesame as an alternative to Chinese exports,” Stapper says.

He says sunflower production has also garnered interest with local growers, but warns that while sunflower is a drought-tolerant crop, it still requires adequate moisture and can be adversely affected in extreme drought conditions.

On Mar. 1 Coastal Bend growers gathered at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in the Coastal Bend for a one-day drought-strategy workshop. The well attended event provided current soil moisture data to growers and offered additional information about tools to monitor crop weather, drought cropping options, risk analysis, alternative crop options and crop disease issues associated with drought.

For area sorghum producers, Stapper says the ideal temperature for quick germination and establishment of grain sorghum is near 65 degrees. The minimum soil temperature at the desired planting depth for germination and emergence of sorghum is about 55 degrees he says, but planting early could cause slow growth.

He also warns that full-season, and even medium-long, maturity hybrids in South and Central Texas can exhaust available moisture before maturity, and reduced yield potential should be expected, especially in dry years.

During dry years lodging or standability factors are important. Drought stress and limited moisture conditions for sorghum can lead to charcoal and other stalk rots which cause lodging, especially when plant populations are high. Gulf Coast wind and storm damage can also make strong standing sorghum hybrids more valuable.

On Mar. 6, livestock producers from across the region will get their chance to review drought impact on forage crops and related information at a Drought Management Symposium for Range and Pastures, also scheduled at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center (10345 State Hwy 44 just west of the Corpus Christi Airport).

The symposium will cover forage management and grazing system issues, designing an early drought warning system, the economic impact of stocking strategies in drought, meeting animal nutrient needs with forage management, rangeland response following drought, and toxic weed identification.