Beginning sometime Friday afternoon, March 15, 2013, Nueces County Extension agent for agriculture, Jeffrey Stapper, will be forced to stop ‘telling’ Texas farmers and ranchers how to adjust, compromise, and persevere the drought, and will start taking up his own advice and putting it into practice following his retirement this week.

Stapper officially retires this week and prepares to join a family ranching enterprise near San Angelo to help manage a cow-calf operation with his father.

“It’s been a real privilege to work with so many good South Texas farmers and ranchers in recent years and I will miss working with them and meeting with them to discuss the challenges of the future and the successes of the past,” Stapper said.

He agreed the immediate challenge would be to stop talking about and start acting upon the latest in agriculture science.

“I have put my years into the AgriLife extension service and it has all been good. I have enjoyed sharing and learning with Texas producers and must take it all to heart now that I will find myself on the other side of the fence and back to ranching,” he added.

While his career has reached the number of years of service required to qualify for official retirement, Stapper says he actually thought he would continue with the Extension service for several more years. But he was raised on a farm near New Braunfels. His father purchased a cow-calf operation a few years back near San Angelo, and because of health concerns and the drought, “now seems like a good time to get back to root of it all.”

As far as what he sees as the greatest challenge facing him in his new role of hands-on agriculture, extreme drought across most of Texas poses a tremendous stumbling black for the cow business—and agriculture-at-large. In addition to water, Stapper says high input costs, especially feed, ample forage and consumer prices are all major hurdles that lie ahead.

“My dad, like other livestock producers across the state, reduced animal numbers and had to downsize because of the drought and the many problems it has been causing over the last couple of years. This will remain the challenge until we finally get the rain we need to turn it all around. When the forage comes back, things will look better, but when that might happen remains the real question.”

Departing and timely advice

Talking like the advisor he has been through his many years of service, Stapper spent his waning time sharing drought tips and solutions to the drought at the very end of his Extension career.

“It may be optimistic to think that we are one day closer to a good rain,” he suggested in his latest and possibly last weekly column as an extension agent. “Rainfall is the major limiting factor to production potential.”

Stapper warned that technology, for all of its contributions, cannot turn on water from the sky. He says we have to look at management tools that can improve the effectiveness of rainfall events when they occur.

“Research has shown that the amount of rainfall runoff from a particular range site is directly related to vegetation on the site.  Generally speaking, sites that are dominated with plants that provide good ground cover hold rainfall the best.  In contrast, sodgrasses or bare ground do not provide sufficient plant litter cover to allow for effective infiltration… [as a result] we see heavy runoff and soil loss.”

He warns that evaporation is another source of water loss on rangeland. The amount of water lost through evaporation from the plant canopies or soil surface is related to the intensity of the rainfall event and the weather conditions that follow.

“We know that not all plants found on our rangelands are desirable for livestock and wildlife production.  Brush or toxic and /or noxious weeds deplete water that could be used for more desirable species. But we can do some things to help improve rainfall effects.”

  1. Reduce runoff -- this can represent a serious loss of water from the ranch.  Research indicates that rangeland infiltration rates generally increase as total plant cover increases. The plant cover slows the water movement across the soil surface allowing more time for water to infiltrate before being lost down creeks and draws. Plant cover also protects the soil surface from rain drop splash. Vegetation type also affects runoff. Bunchgrasses are more effective at reducing runoff than sodgrasses, while oak mottes produce even less runoff. Livestock stocking rates, grazing systems, and species of livestock are all major management tools that can be used to manage the range forage base.
  2. Reducing the undesirable weed and brush species -- It has been estimated that mesquite uses 100 gallons of water for each pound of above ground plant growth produced. Perennial grasses are more efficient users of water requiring from 40 to 75 gallons of water for each pound of above -ground biomass produced. The amount of water used by unwanted plants can vary greatly from ranch to ranch depending on the species of plants present and their density. Having a plan to manage these undesirable plants can help improve the efficiency of water use for livestock and wildlife.
  3. The harvest of vegetation by livestock must be limited to ensure regrowth and reproduction of perennial range vegetation. An old rule of thumb: 50 percent of forage should be left standing for health of the plant; 25 percent will be lost to trampling, weathering, or consumption by insects and small mammals, which leaves only 25 percent that is actually consumed by livestock.

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“Bottom line, rainfall represents the single most limiting factor to livestock production on Texas rangelands.  We have done the best job possible at managing these range sites so that when we are blessed with a rainfall event, our rangelands can take full advantage of that precious water resource and keep it on site, store in the soil profile, for the dry times that will come again,” Stapper says.

South Texas agriculture will miss Jeff Stapper - as a county agent and as a friend. And Stapper says he will miss South Texas and the friends and associations he has made.

“But I’ll make it back down from time to time and I won’t really be all that far away,” he says.