Puddles. A few Southwest farmers, mostly in Northeast Texas and Southeast Oklahoma, saw puddles in mid-January, offering hope but little reassurance that a withering drought may be near its end.

This drought has been a sneaky one and accompanies a second record cotton harvest for Texas. West Texas farmers say they got very little rain but the meager amounts that fell picked the right time to make cotton. And ample winter rains gave them good soil moisture to begin the 2005 crop. Cotton farmers in South Texas saw yields plummet following two good years, however.

Grain harvest also suffered and many farmers report near failures for corn, grain sorghum and wheat. Dry conditions in Texas have prevailed since April of last year.

Texas drought losses have reached an estimated $1.5 billion, fueled by high hay costs and extended supplemental feeding for livestock, Texas Cooperative Extension reports.

“More than 90 percent of the state’s range and pastures are in extreme, stressed condition,” says Carl Anderson, professor emeritus and Extension economist. “Hay supplies are short and expensive. Water supplies are short and will only worsen if we don’t get any rain soon. The main problem for ranchers is having enough hay and buying enough feed.”

“The updated numbers reflect an extended long period of supplemental feeding that has gone on a lot longer than normal,” says David Anderson, Extension livestock marketing economist.

“Overall, the soil profile statewide is dry,” says Travis Miller, associate Extension head, department of soil and crop sciences. “The planting prospects are looking pretty grim for spring crops, particularly in South Texas. Normally, we start planting corn and sorghum in mid February. That won’t happen unless we get some water to put in the soil profiles.”

East Texas has been one of the hardest hit regions. Typically, about 750,000 to 1 million acres of winter pasture in ryegrass or ryegrass blended with oats is planted to offset supplemental feeding bills. Lack of rainfall never allowed those plantings to surface, Carl Anderson says.

Texas Governor Rick Perry has declared a disaster in all 254 Texas counties due to severe drought conditions, and requested that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency provide disaster relief assistance for Texas farms and ranches that have suffered economic and physical losses as a result.

If Perry’s statewide request is approved, qualified farm operators in all Texas counties will be eligible for low-interest emergency loans from the USDA’s Farm

Service Agency. Producers can borrow up to 100 percent of actual production for physical losses, or a maximum of $500,000. The agency also offers additional programs, such as technical assistance, to eligible farmers.

Tom Rainey, a Denton County rancher, says stock tanks are at an all-time low and feedstuff is running perilously short.

“We usually carryover hay from one year to the next,” Rainey says. “That got us through this winter, but we’ll run out in March.”

Rainey hopes to make some late oats to augment forage for his 175 to 200 mama cows. He runs both commercial and registered Santa Gertrudis cattle.

“We’re having to cull a bit more than usual,” he says. “We started with older cows and open cows but we’re also moving some calves sooner than we would like to stretch feed supplies.”

Farmers across the region say no appreciable rain has fallen since late last winter and most got little or nothing out of the system that hovered over Northeast Texas for nearly 24 hours, leaving from one to one-and-one-half inches of rain in its wake. Some got nothing.

“Zip, zilch, nada. I received about 43 small fertilizer-sized ice ball pellets at my house Saturday night,” says Randy Boman, Extension cotton specialist at Lubbock. “It didn’t even register as a trace at the official Lubbock rain gauge. We are now closing in on 90 days or so of no precip at Lubbock, and I believe when we passed 85 days that broke all previous dry spell records.”

Jim Swart, Extension integrated pest management specialist at Texas A&M-Commerce, says the area got “anywhere from an inch to an inch-and-a-half.”

He says moisture was likely enough to get wheat that had not germinated up and perhaps saved some plants that were up and drought-stressed. “Wheat that’s already up will begin to tiller now,” he says. “We at least have hope where we had none before.”

He says top yields will not likely approach 100 bushels per acre in the Northeast corner of the state where soft wheat is the norm and where rainfall usually allows fairly good production.

“But we may still see some 60-bushel wheat,” he says.

Intense drought has devastated wheat fields across Texas, says a Texas Wheat Producers Association report.

The wheat update indicates that 85 percent of the Texas wheat crop is rated poor to very poor, with 15 percent rated good to fair, based on the Texas Agricultural Statistics Service, January 23, 2006 report. The statewide wheat condition is rated at 20 percent of normal, compared to 82 percent at this time last year. Abandonment of planted fields remains high, especially in dryland fields. Some producers are plowing up grain crops in preparation to plant alternate crops.

Vic Schoonover, with the North Texas Oklahoma Cotton Association, says Southern Oklahoma got little moisture from the mid-January rain.

“The last rain, (Dare I say, trace in very small letters?) occurred Saturday night (January 21) here. It was what we call a good eight-inch rain, eight inches between each drop. We went to Altus Sunday afternoon and saw two small puddles between the railroad tracks.”

Schoonover says the area so far has avoided wildfires that have ravaged the parched pastures and rangelands in much of North Texas.

“We are very lucky there have been no big fires in southwest Oklahoma so far,” he says. “The rains in early summer last year made the grass grow well. It has made for good dry forage for the cattle and cover for bobwhite quail. We have apparently not suffered as much from dry weather as farther east of here.”

He says from Lawton east, conditions become worse, “because dry weather in that area started much earlier in 2005 and left them with less grass.

“The rains came right for the cotton, but the wheat around here is in sad shape. One neighbor plowed up some of his wheat, but you can drive a couple of miles and see calves grazing on wheat that is eaten down, but not completely gone. The secret last fall was catching a ‘saddle blanket’ shower and being able to sow wheat right behind it.”

Harvey Buehring, Nueces County (Texas) Extension Agent, says “measurable rainfall” fell on the Lower Coastal Bend of Texas the third weekend of January.

“Although modest, it was cause for excitement for farmers and ranchers,” he says. “The amount of rain was very slight with a tenth to two-tenths of an inch widespread throughout Nueces and adjoining counties.

“The precipitation was an accumulation of light mist with an occasional sprinkle. It was far from being a drought buster, which we need desperately. The most significant thing about this event was that it was the first time in 2006 that most locations in the Lower Coastal Bend were able to capture anything measurable in a rain gauge.”

Texas Cooperative Extension experts say the much-needed moisture did little to dampen the state’s critical hay situation.

“You might say our current hay dilemma is the perfect storm,” says Jason Johnson, Extension economist at San Angelo. “Drought conditions across our major hay-producing areas last season killed our production.

“Now it won’t rain, so the small grain grazing much of the state relies on just isn’t there. Normally, other regions and states typically step in to supply hay during poor growing conditions here, but they too are experiencing the same production-related issues we are,” he says.

Johnson says the Texas Agricultural Statistics Service wrap-up from last season shows alfalfa production down 9 percent and all other hay production down 22 percent.

“High fuel prices are also being added to the mix,” says Johnson. “Hay is having to be hauled major distances now and freight is expensive. The only real relief I can think of would be some good, general soaking rains across the state. That would perk up the small grain, winter grass and weed grazing and put some much-needed moisture back into the soil for a good start next spring.”

Throughout most of Texas, Extension agriculture officials report supplemental feeding of livestock continues and extreme fire hazards exist due to the dryness.

The wheat association reports that producers are currently experiencing economic loss due to the need for supplemental feeding of cattle in all areas of the state with many producers continuing to purchase additional hay supplies from out-of-state sources. Range fires continue in many areas and are especially damaging when pushed by high winds.

Wildfires have destroyed pastures, livestock, fences and equipment. However, natural disasters haven’t been the only burden on farmers and ranchers this crop year. Fuel and fertilizer costs for most farmers have more than doubled over the last year.

Rainey says early pricing estimates for fertilizers shows a two-fold increase over last year.

“And diesel is out of sight,” he says.

e-mail: rsmith@prismb2b.com