Travis Miller is the go-to guy for drought-related questions in Texas. That’s not a fun job these days.
“I’ve looked at a lot of droughts over the years, but I’ve never seen one this bad,” says Miller, associate head, Extension and statewide agronomist at College Station.
“This situation is really serious,” he says. At least 60 percent of the state is rated in extreme or exceptional drought conditions. Add the severe category and it’s 85 percent of the state.
“Every acre in Texas is experiencing drought,” Miller says. “The first casualty is wheat. We’ve probably already lost 60 percent or more of the dryland crop and we’ll lose a lot more if it doesn’t rain soon.
“And cotton farmers have never seen a better price but they can’t plant without moisture.” He says forage and pasture grasses are diminishing.
The South Texas Coastal area is in about as good a shape as anywhere in the state, but crops already planted will need rain soon to survive, he says. “Central Texas has had a few showers that helped for awhile, but without more rain crops will not make it.”
He says cotton farmers in the High Plains had anticipated planting as much as 10 percent more acreage but will be waiting on rain to get dryland crops in. “Those with irrigation will be pumping as hard as they can to pre-water,” he says.
Irrigation may mean farmers can make a crop but production costs will be dear.
“If we get some rain, we will see a planting explosion,” he says.
Drought conditions also have turned the state into a tinder box, extremely vulnerable to wildfires. Miller says estimates late last week put total burned acreage at 1.1 million. He expects additional fires over the weekend will push that figure to 1.2 or 1.3 million acres.
No economic loss estimates have been released yet, but reports indicate some areas have suffered heavy losses to pasture and rangeland, farm structure, homes and livestock.
Miller says every area of the state is vulnerable to wildfire.
Harsh conditions statewide
Texas AgriLife integrated pest management agents across the state say drought conditions
“The drought situation in Hockley and Cochran Counties (due west of Lubbock to the New Mexico state line) is severe (D 2 Drought level) with the only exception a small area in the northeast corner of Hockley County near Anton, which is classed as moderate (D 1),” says Kerry Siders, Extension IPM agent for Hockley and Cochran Counties.
“Wildfire damage has occurred on pastures and various locations where grass and other dry plant material fuels have been ignited from various sources. This has caused some loss of late winter livestock forage, destruction of fence and structures but no loss of human life,” he says.
“High winds in excess of 40 miles per hour have been common over last several days causing difficulty in controlling any fires but also assuring continued loss of soil moisture needed for spring green-up. Soaking rains are desperately needed along with less wind. Current economic losses are substantial. Future losses on production agriculture are untold if drought continues with no relief.”
“Gaines County has received 0.8 inches of rain since October,” says IPM agent Manda Anderson. “All of that has blown away. We are very, very dry, just like the rest of the state.”
She says fire has not been as devastating as in other areas. “I think we have fared a little better than other counties that have had several large fires,” she says. “This is not to say that we aren’t as dry as they are, but maybe we have just been lucky. I am starting to see more and more road side patches or burnt brush areas. As far as I have heard, we have not lost any houses.”
“The entire countryside is like a tender box, but we are thankful to have been spared significant damage so far,” says Scott Russell, IPM agent for Terry and Yoakum Counties.
In Terry County, a large wildfire erupted April 9 in the northwest portion of the county, he says. “Damage included loss of rangeland and damage in oil fields, numerous telephone poles, and a couple of out buildings that were damaged or destroyed, but no homes or livestock were lost. Fire may have consumed 15,000 acres as it moved north toward Sundown.”
Russell says numerous small fires have burned about 1,000 acres.
In Yoakum County, a fire on April 19 or 20 burned 200 to 300 acres east of Denver City and another 500 plus acres east of Plains. “No homes, structures or livestock were lost. There have been other small fires but also minor damages.
It’s not any better in south Texas, says IPM agent Clyde Crumley, who works out of Wharton.
“We are in a real bind for moisture here,” Crumley says. “Seems like every time we look at the 10-day forecast and it has, say a 60 percent chance of rain some 5 to 7 days down the road, it literally evaporates to 10 percent to 0 percent by the time that day gets here, which is very discouraging.”
He says rainfall has been “abysmal” since planting started in February. “Our rainfall (as measured at the Crop Weather Program stations) are as follows: In Wharton County since January 1, we’ve gotten 3 inches; in 2010 we received 7inches during the same period of time. In Jackson County since January 1, we’ve gotten 3.7 inches; in 2010, we received 9.3 inches during the same period. The 25-year average for this period in Wharton County is 12.9 inches.”
Crumley says early season cool temperatures and unusually high winds also affected the crops. “Conditions continue to fluctuate with cloudy, cool weather in the morning hours and then warming up in the afternoon. Non-irrigated crops such as corn started looking like pineapple plantations after the dry cold front came through April 4 and, excluding a few isolated areas, has steadily deteriorated.”
He says cotton is off to a rough start. In some fields, plant populations are marginal and cool conditions last month slowed growth and development. “Much of the cotton is playing catch-up.”
He says most of the cotton “appears to be behind and in some cases looks kind of ‘sick.’ The cotyledon leaves as well as the 1-to 5-true leaves on some of the older cotton are torn, burnt, and exhibit spotty patches of discolored tissue. We have determined that in most of the fields we are looking at this is due to high wind, a light frost and drought conditions and not necessarily disease.
“We really need a good rain to meet subsoil moisture, followed by few hot, dry days to get this cotton crop going in the right direction.”
As much as 25 percent to 30 percent of available cotton acres have not been planted in Wharton County, Crumley says “due in large measure to lack of soil moisture. Growers parked their planters three to four weeks ago and have been waiting on a planting rain since.”
He says wildfire damage has been minimal. “Compared to the rest of the state we’ve been spared so far.”
In Oklahoma, Gary O’Neil, with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, says wildfires have not been as damaging as they have been in Texas but a ‘significant number are popping up. We had more over the weekend,” he says. “Fortunately, we have not heard of any significant damage, loss of livestock or infrastructure.”
But the drought is wreaking havoc on the wheat crop. “We expect significant yield losses,” O’Neil says. “Areas in the eastern part of the state have gotten some rain but Western Oklahoma remains dry.”
He says wheat for forage is not providing enough vegetation to graze out cattle. “Some corn is out of the ground but without more rain it will not survive.”
He says the period from Thanksgiving until now represents the driest six months on record in Oklahoma.