July deluges in Southwest Texas officially ended a near two-year drought, but effects of that long dry spell may linger for years.
“Pastures and ranges are probably the biggest beneficiaries of the late spring rain,” says Jose Pena, Texas A&M professor and Extension economist, management, at Uvalde.
“But it will probably take years for ranges to recover fully from the severe drought, which lasted close to two years in Southwest Texas.”
Pena said the drought officially began in mid-November, 2005, at which time conditions were at less than 75 percent of average annual rainfall. The area remained in severe drought status until mid-June, 2007.
“Mid-November, 2005, to mid-Jun, 2007, was the driest period on record,” Pena said. “The rolling 365-day cumulative rainfall from mid-November, 2005, through mid-June, 2007, averaged 11.85 inches of rain, 51 percent below the long term annual average of 24.34 inches.”
Pena said that means the area received less than half the average amount of rainfall that created the ecological environment that depends on the rain.
Conditions turned quickly
“Rainfall in July in Southwest Texas ended at 2.5 times the long-term average for the month, bringing year-to-date cumulative rainfall totals to about 143 percent of the long-term average,” Pena said.
The bountiful rain helped improve forage availability and boosted corn, sorghum, cotton and other spring crops. “The fourteen inches or more accumulation of rain from May through July was devastating to wheat, onions and to sorghum and corn harvest, which was just gaining momentum when concentrated rains came. Harvest resumed as open, clear weather dried fields, but sorghum is experiencing major quality discounts and a large part of the wheat, onion and spring hay crops was lost.”
He said farm operations have experienced financial loss because of the heavy rains. Farm fields will recover.
So will pastures but perhaps not right away. “Some pastures and ranges may not recover without major improvements.”
Forage availability is above long-term average this summer, but a “substantial amount of the preferred grass/forage species was lost to drought and has been replaced with lesser quality forbs. Even with minimum stocking rates, degradation of forage production resulting from the extended drought will continue to have serious implications to agriculture in Southwest Texas.”
Pena said wildlife populations may be early beneficiaries of improved forages and better nutrition. He said wildlife biologists report improved fawn and game bird crops this summer following a two-year decline. That may be critical for ranchers who depend on wildlife resource management as a key profit center.
Pena said the effect of any drought is measured by the influence it has on vegetation and the vegetation's ability to recover. Frequency of rainfall following the drought has “been far beyond expectations. Whether it is enough to reestablish desirable grass species remains to be seen. In addition to reduced stocking rates, rainfall significantly above average will be needed for several years to help favorable grass and forbs recover.”
If pastures and ranges do not rebound, more ranches may turn to wildlife for more income, Pena said.
Coastal Bend farmers and ranchers also face post-drought, post-deluge problems as they try to catch up with grain harvest and finish a cotton crop.
Nueces County Extension Agent Harvey Buehring said a rain-free week in early August “accelerated drying out water-logged grain sorghum and corn fields across the Lower Coastal Bend region.”
That burst of activity, however, stalled because of “a combination of problems, primarily lack of grain storage capacity. Most country elevators were at, or very near, maximum capacity. Export elevators were also nearing capacity and besieged by long lines of trucks with in-bound grain shipments,” he said.
“This limited the country elevators' abilities to create space by shipping grain contracted to major buyers specifying delivery to export elevators at the Port of Corpus Christi quickly enough to make more space.”
Trucking shortages made the problem worse. “This created a ripple-effect that ultimately resulted in the ‘snails-pace’ movement of grain from country elevators in the Lower Coastal Bend to the major export elevators,” Buehring said.
“Most independent truckers had little desire to accept jobs moving grain out of the jam-packed country elevators to the export elevators. They didn't want to risk being tied-up in long lines at the Port of Corpus Christi dumping only one load every day or two, when they could be hauling three or four loads per day from farmers' fields to nearby country elevators.”
He said farmers were reluctant to release truckers from hauling out of fields when they still had significant quantities of grain to transport.
He said the region has a “size 12 grain crop we are attempting to cram into a size 10-½ boot.”
Buehring said area elevator managers recognized the potential problem just after farmers had planted a large grain acreage. He said the potential for storage and transportation problems also loomed large when abundant rainfall in June indicated a far better than average crop in the making.
“At that time it was evident that generous moisture conditions would boost yield potentials to historic proportions for much of the South Texas grain belt.”
Buehring said no economic incentive to hold grain in storage long term for the past ten years or more due to changes in government farm policy favored a move to more cotton and less grain. “Many of the older grain storage facilities across the coastal region were dismantled.”
Harvey said Coastal Bend farmers typically spend much of August “harvesting cotton at a rapid pace since their grain crop is usually harvested nearly a month earlier. They also keep a sharp eye on long-range tropical weather conditions, because they tend to get more active about this time each year.”
This year is different. “Cotton was delayed from the get go in Nueces, San Patricio, and surrounding counties. A wet July extended the bloom period and cooler nighttime temperatures slowed boll development. These factors resulted in at least a two-week delay in cotton harvest season,” Buehring said.
In early August, many Coastal Bend cotton farmers were just beginning to apply defoliation treatments on their more mature cotton.
“In South Texas, under the hot temperatures typical for August, plants drop leaves in about a week's time.” He expected harvest to get into full swing on those earliest fields around the middle of the month, “weather permitting.”
He said hurricane season means farmers have to make difficult decisions. “Just how much of the cotton crop do they want to expose without the natural protection of cotton leaves to protect open cotton bolls from rain?
“Some days farming brings new meaning to the term ‘stressful,’” he said.