Health & Environment

Texas Agriculture A Tale Of Rainfall Haves And Have-Nots

Nearly half the state is experiencing abnormally dry weather while other regions see record-high rainfalls. Texas A&M experts explain the disparity and the impact on farmers.
By Adam Russell, Texas A&M AgriLife Marketing and Communications June 14, 2024

A flooded corn field.
Agriculture producers in half of the state are dealing with some level of drought while those in the eastern half are experiencing good growing conditions and soil moisture though rainfall has at times been excessive, leading to flooded or saturated croplands and delayed plantings, crop maintenance and harvests.

Courtney Sacco/Texas A&M AgriLife Marketing and Communications

 

When it comes to rainfall and the subsequent soil moisture that fuels agricultural production, the state is made up of haves and have-nots, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.

Dr. Larry Stein, AgriLife Extension horticulturist in the Texas A&M Department of Horticultural Sciences, and AgriLife Extension agronomists Dr. Jourdan Bell and Dr. Ronnie Schnell from the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, gave mixed reports on soil moisture levels around the state.

More than half the state, especially east of U.S. Interstate 35, is free from any level of drought, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor map for Texas. But more than 45% of the state continues to show a lack of rainfall at levels ranging from abnormally dry to extreme drought.

That is a significant change compared to the drought monitor map for Texas on Sept. 26, 2023, when 97% of the state was experiencing abnormally dry to exceptional drought conditions. Much of the eastern half of the state was experiencing extreme to exceptional drought at that time.

Rainfall Haves And Have-Nots

Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist and Regents Professor in the Texas A&M Department of Atmospheric Sciences, said parts of Texas have experienced records on both ends of the rainfall spectrum.

Nielsen-Gammon said the highest recent rain totals occurred in a triangle between Beaumont, Brady and Longview.

May was the wettest month on record for Waco and Goldthwaite, which received 15.28 inches and 17 inches, respectively. Town Bluff Dam/Lake B.A. Steinhagen, an hour north of Beaumont, reported the wettest two-month period in its 70-year history during April and May with 40.5 inches. Nielsen-Gammon said that weather station set the new two-month record despite reporting 25 inches of rain during Hurricane Harvey alone.

“May is normally the wettest month of the year for Texas, but not this wet,” he said. “We do have record warm sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico for this time of year, so there has been extra moisture flowing into Texas, which means increased instability and chances for thunderstorms.”

On the drier end of the spectrum, Nielsen-Gammon said there is a strong gradient in drought levels south and west of that rainfall-heavy triangle. Kerr, Bandera and Kendall counties continue to experience persistent extreme drought.

Kerrville has experienced the driest 36-month period on record, he said. Southwest and Far West Texas are experiencing moderate to extreme drought while parts of the Panhandle range from none to moderate drought.

Sprinkles And Showers Don’t End Droughts

Stein said the Winter Garden area, just south of the Edwards Plateau region, has received sprinkles and showers that have improved landscape aesthetics but done little for agriculture.

“We’ve had some rain, but it takes more than a little rain to curtail drought,” Stein said. “Lake levels are way down. Wells and livestock tanks are going dry, and there is no running water (in creeks and rivers). It’s not good.”

Stein said major reservoirs like Canyon Lake between San Antonio and Austin, and Lake Amistad and Falcon Lake continue to drop due to a lack of runoff rainfall in their respective watersheds.

Dropping well and reservoir capacity could directly impact Texas crop producers’ ability to irrigate, but Stein said even water applied by irrigation pivots only supplements rainfall for plants.

“There are some corn fields in the Winter Garden area that were able to emerge and grow some, but they never received more than a half an inch of rainfall,” he said. “Producers are rolling them up for hay now.”

Texas Panhandle Short On Soil Moisture

Soil moisture levels are slightly better in the Texas Plains and Panhandle, Bell said, but added the storm fronts that delivered rainfall also brought hail and wind damage.

Rainfall that improved moisture indexes in the Panhandle between fall and early spring left distinct lines between the haves and have-nots, she said. While there is little drought in the eastern and southeastern portions of the Panhandle, western and northwestern areas still need rainfall.

Some of the recent moisture came at a cost. Bell said golf ball-sized hail and sandblasting from high winds caused significant damage in fledgling cotton fields and to established corn.

“Hot, windy conditions have followed rainfall events, and that has dried fields out and driven crop water demand,” she said. “So, we’re still looking at very dry soil moisture in many areas.”

However, Bell reported that much of the central and southern Panhandle benefited from a slow, soaking rain on Monday – 0.5 to 2 inches in areas – with moderate temperatures and no hail. While this will delay wheat harvest, she said it will be very beneficial for both dryland and irrigated summer crops.

Excess Rain In East Texas

On the other end of the spectrum, crop producers in the eastern half of the state have been experiencing good growing conditions for the most part. Schnell said in some areas excess rainwater has led to delays and poor crop conditions.

Crops looked very good in fields that were not subject to constant saturation and flooding. Most wheat fields were harvested, but Schnell said there were some in lower-lying areas that have yet to be cut because of soggy conditions. Wet field conditions have also prevented some growers from getting seeds in the ground before planting deadlines passed.

Schnell said some of those growers may have planting options depending on their location, but outcomes are “iffy” for Central and North Texas.

Despite problems associated with excess moisture for some, most growers east of Interstate 35 are optimistic about the season. Early planted corn fields that are entering the denting stage and caught good amounts of rainfall over recent months may not need any rain to make it to harvest.

Other later-planted corn and sorghum fields and cotton will need additional rainfall as they progress toward harvest, but conditions are positive for early summer.

“Moisture has been a big story, but one thing that has helped is the lack of extreme heat early in the season,” he said. “We’re getting into the mid- and upper-90s, but we haven’t seen any triple digits like last year. That’s been an important part for crop development.”

This article by Adam Russell originally appeared on AgriLife Today.

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