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Texas agriculture a tale of rainfall haves and have-nots

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.

Larry Stein, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension horticulturist in the Texas A&M Department of Horticultural Sciences, Uvalde, and Jourdan Bell, Ph.D., Amarillo, and Ronnie Schnell, Ph.D., Bryan-College Station, both AgriLife Extension agronomists in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, gave mixed reports on soil moisture levels around the state.

A flooded corn field. 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)

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

John Nielsen-Gammon, Ph.D., Texas state climatologist and Regents Professor in the Texas A&M Department of Atmospheric Sciences, Bryan-College Station, 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.”

AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

A map of the 12 Texas A&M AgriLife Extension districts. A map of the 12 Texas A&M AgriLife Extension districts.
A map of the 12 Texas A&M AgriLife Extension districts.

Central

The district received beneficial rainfall, which significantly reduced drought conditions in most areas. Lake levels continued to climb. Wheat heads were beginning to sprout, resulting in crop losses. The later harvest cut back the window for planting alternate rotation crops. Corn looked good overall, despite plants in low-lying areas being severely depressed due to excess water. Some damage was reported after the pollination and silking stages with the loss of leaves showing some reduced kernel fill, which could significantly impact yield. Cotton planting remained at a standstill with only half of the crop planted. Producers were seeing a high number of fleahoppers, and thrips remained a concern in some late-planted fields. Soil moisture conditions were excellent, but record high temperatures were starting to dry out fields. Hay was cut, but the wet ground made drying hard and forage crops were beginning to have more weeds than normal. Livestock were in good condition with some cattle work being done.

Rolling Plains

The district experienced drier conditions, and rainfall was reported in some areas. Wheat harvest was delayed by rain but fared well with no rust reported. Cotton planting was almost complete, but some areas needed replanting due to the heavy rains. Cattle grazed well on pastures that received ample rainfall, but flies and grasshoppers were becoming a problem. Producers in some areas were cutting and baling Coastal Bermuda grass pastures with above-average yields, and sorghum and corn fields were improving as they dried out.

Coastal Bend

The district experienced a mix of weather conditions. Recent rains provided much-needed relief to field crops, though hail damage was reported in some corn and cotton. Corn looked good and was in the dough stage while sorghum was headed out and coloring with both crops on schedule to be harvested two weeks earlier than expected. Some corn and sorghum fields were beginning to dry down and rice was beginning to head. Cotton was blooming and setting bolls, but producers were fighting fleahoppers and stinkbugs. Pasture conditions were bleak due to the dry, hot and windy conditions. Hay baling continued despite the recent rainfall impacting harvest. Producers were supplementing forage and making tough management decisions due to weather conditions in most counties. Livestock fared well and markets were strong.

East

More rainfall and severe storms were reported, with many areas reporting property damage and downed trees. Ponds, creeks and lakes continued to be full or even overflowing, which caused flooding in most areas. Gopher and fire ant control began in some areas, and fly populations were rising. Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair while soil conditions ranged from adequate to surplus. Hay production either slowed to a crawl or was halted due to saturated pastures. Livestock were in fair to good condition and markets remained strong.

Southeast

Weather conditions were drier, and some areas in the district received rainfall. Hay yields continued to be excellent in most areas, but some fields were still unable to be cut due to the weather conditions. Rangeland and pasture ratings were very poor to excellent while soil moisture levels ranged from short to adequate. The rice fields were flooded and in good condition. Flies were beginning to be a problem for livestock farmers in most areas due to the excess moisture. Cattle markets continued to hold steady in most areas with few markets reporting slightly higher prices. Mosquitoes were reported in most areas with the recent rains and saturated soil.

South Plains

Scattered rain showers were reported districtwide with rainfall totals varying from zero to 2.1 inches. First post-emergence herbicide applications were underway in cotton. There were reports of irrigated and dryland cotton replanting due to spotty emergence. Producers were preparing to plant black-eyed peas, and yields were high for irrigated wheat grain harvest.

Panhandle

The district received scattered showers with varying rainfall amounts reported. Overall soil moisture conditions ranged from short to adequate. Dryland wheat was passing through final maturity stages quickly, and irrigated fields were close behind due to high daytime temperatures. Many irrigated wheat and triticale fields also were harvested for silage. A few cotton fields were lost due to hail. Pasture and range conditions varied from poor to good with crop conditions ranging from poor to good.

North

The district received varying amounts of rain with some areas receiving 3-5 inches. A few areas reported high winds that uprooted some trees. Many wheat and oat fields were past maturity and unable to be harvested due to wet soil conditions. The corn crop looked good in well-drained fields, but some fields received wind damage. Soybean, cotton and grain sorghum planting was minimal due to very moist soils. Producers were baling hay in drier areas. Soil moisture was adequate to surplus and pasture conditions were good to excellent with a few areas reporting fair to good conditions. Livestock conditions were still favorable, but nuisance flies and mosquitoes were reported with horse flies becoming more prevalent.  

Far West

High temperatures in the district ranged from the upper-90s to low-100s with rainfall amounts ranging between traces and 0.5 of an inch. Cotton looked good in most areas, but showed some wind burn. Rattlesnake sightings increased significantly due to the heat. Corn looked good but the hot weather was beginning to take a toll. Melons looked good, and pecan trees were pollinating. Livestock were being sold at a high rate due to the drought conditions. Cattle were in good condition, but producers had to work hard to keep cattle fed and hydrated.

West Central

The district reported hot and dry conditions in the past week with average rainfall amounts ranging from nothing to almost half an inch. Wheat and oat harvest was wrapping up with few acres left in most areas. Cotton planting was in progress, and sorghum was beginning to head. Pecan trees looked good despite slow growth and some drought-related tree damage. Pasture and range conditions varied from fair to good with warm-season forages beginning to grow. Grasshoppers were reported but were not a major concern in most areas. Livestock looked excellent, but sheep and goat producers were managing for internal parasites. Cattle were in good condition.

Southwest

The hot, dry conditions persisted with the heat index above 100 for most of the week. Rainfall amounts ranged from 0.8-1.5 inches in most areas. Row crops looked good to excellent, but signs of drought were prevalent in pastures and rangeland. There were sightings of desert termites in some areas, and aphid infestations were reported in others. Warm-season hay baling began and seeding of Dallis grass and other warm-season grasses was underway. Rangeland conditions may result in early weaning of lamb and kid crops. Livestock and wildlife were in fair condition and under heavy supplementation.

South

The district reported hot and dry conditions with high temperatures ranging in the upper-90s and into the triple digits. Corn and grain sorghum crops were drying down and harvest was beginning in most areas. Cotton was in the flowering stage and quality varied from poor to good. Producers were applying plant growth regulators and spraying for insects on irrigated cotton fields. Sesame crops looked good, with some blooming and pod emergence reported by producers. Pasture and range conditions varied from poor to good, and soil moisture levels ranged from poor to fair. Livestock and wildlife conditions were good, but supplemental feeding was needed due to dry conditions in most areas. Cattle conditions ranged from poor to good while markets remained strong.

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