Back in late September I picked up one of those freebies folks hand out at field days to advertise their services, and, at the time, thought it would be one of the most useless I'd ever come home with.

Why, I wondered at the time, would anyone in the Southwest ever need a rain gauge? I envisioned installing it in my back yard and watching small spiders build webs in it. I'd dump out the dust every month or so, just in case a sprinkle of rain threatened to make a tiny little mud muffin inside.

I also thought about sticking it in the ground to check how much water I apply when I irrigate my lawn. Then I got my first water bill and decided that green lawns are highly overrated.

So I left the rain gauge in the box it came in, and stuck it on my workbench, where I happened to glance at it one Sunday a few weeks back just as a dark cloud began forming to the Southwest of Dallas.

I stuck it in the yard, just to see how small an amount of water it would register. I had spent most of the day fertilizing that grass that I had decided was too expensive to water and had just finished reading the directions on the fertilizer/herbicide bag that indicated that I should not apply the material if rain is expected within 24 hours.

Well, I've lived in Texas for just a little over a year and have come to the conclusion that rain is never expected. It comes more as a surprise. Consequently, I'll be needing to apply what was left of the fertilizer as soon as I can count on 24 hours without rain.

The rain gauge read 2.5 inches the next morning, following an afternoon, evening and night filled with surprises, some quite loud and some quite bright as thunder roared, lightning flashed and rain poured down in buckets.

Somewhere, down the street from my house, a neighbor will benefit from the fertilizer I had applied earlier in the day. I've gotten by for two or three weeks now without my irrigation system spewing money into the air. And the rain gauge has proven its worth, if only for a short season.

By now, most of the Southwest has received some rain. Wheat, much of it planted in dust, is germinating; farmers who waited have been rewarded with adequate moisture to seed small grains. And, to some extent, moisture is beginning to recharge soils that have been depleted through one of the hottest, driest summers I've ever seen.

Unfortunately, we can't rejoice and claim to be through a drought that has hung on for four or five years in some areas. It will take a lot more rain to recharge aquifers and to assure enough underground moisture to see crops through next season.

A lot more water needs to fall to bring pastures back to full grazing capacity. And we will need a number of surprise storms to refill reservoirs and stock tanks.

And farmers and ranchers will be wise to continue to manage water as the precious resource they know it to be. This issue of Southwest Farm Press is an attempt to point out some of the practices that help conserve water. It's not all-inclusive, however, and that's why this topic will be a crucial part of our coverage mission for the region.

Irrigating a small plot of bermudagrass in Denton, Texas, I've found, can be expensive. But that's spitting in the ocean compared to what farmers and ranchers face as they try to make crops and feed and water livestock with more than 100 days without rainfall.

Here's to useful rain gauges.