Is Drought Really Over In Texas?

Some timely early fall rainfall and the promise of El Nino's return brought hope to the state but late fall turned dry and windy and El Nino skipped town.

Published on: Nov 19, 2012

After the historic 2011 Texas Drought, and many months of extremely hot and dry weather in 2012, farmers and ranchers finally welcomed some timely rains in September and early October in the state.

But then late October became dry, and November turned unseasonably warm, dry and extremely windy for a long string of days.

Then the El Nino weather cycle that was supposed to bring a lot of wet weather by November just wimped out. El Nino is a warming of the surface water of the Central Pacific. This generally means a return to wetter conditions. It did for a short while—more rain in some places than others—but then just faded away.

Steve Lyons, meteorologist in charge, National Weather Service forecast office, San Angelo, Texas, puts it bluntly—and sadly.

GRAZE SOME. Some Texas winter wheat already was offering limited grazing by late October, but some parts of Texas had turned unseasonably warm, dry and extremely windy during November. The removal of an El Nino influence for a wet winter has many concerned the drought may not be over. Texas AgriLife Extension Service photo
GRAZE SOME. Some Texas winter wheat already was offering limited grazing by late October, but some parts of Texas had turned unseasonably warm, dry and extremely windy during November. The removal of an El Nino influence for a wet winter has many concerned the drought may not be over. Texas AgriLife Extension Service photo

"The El Nino watch has been discontinued," Lyons laments. "Don't expect any big blockbuster rain from El Nino."

That doesn't mean there won't be some rain—somewhere—this winter, but the forecast is just not as encouraging as before.  But typically, he adds, although rainfall is possible, Texas doesn't generally get a lot of rain in winter.

What's more, Lyons says Texas farmers and ranchers can expect slightly above average temperatures.

The wind just howled on several November days across the Rolling Plains and High Plains of West Texas. That's really bad on robbing some of the water that had been caught from previous early fall rains.

"This area is very high evaporation," Lyons says of West Texas. "Hot, windy days really remove water from catchments."

~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~Indeed, Lyons notes that evaporation rates can double in some years.

"So much water is wasted to evaporation," he says.

Stock tanks that are very deep and have less surface area, do not suffer as much evaporation as shallow tanks and ponds with a large surface area, Lyons notes.

Wheat this winter
Market uncertainties and weather could impact wheat growers in Texas this winter, says a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service marketing expert.

Much of the uncertainty stems from whether the drought is over, the grain market, and how much wheat will be available for grazing.

Dr. Mark Waller, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension economist in grain marketing and policy, College Station, says most of the state's winter wheat got a boost from late-summer and early-fall rains. A lot of wheat emerged to a good stand, and by late October was even providing forage for grazing by some stocker cattle.

But some producers may opt to go for grazing and grain—or even solely grain production, if prices remain strong.

"From a traditional standpoint, grain prices are high," he says. "We've been trading in a kind of sideways pattern since June, if you look at future market prices. A lot of that is because grain supplies are tight, and not only wheat supplies. If you look at what happened with the drought in the Midwest, we're likely to see pressure for more wheat to go toward feeding because there is a shorter corn crop."

"Some of those look like relatively profitable decisions right now," Waller adds. "With prices at these levels, they at least have something to consider—it's better than having low prices, but there's a lot of uncertainty right now."

~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~The promised El-Nino losing its vigor, also adds to the uncertainty of winter wheat in Texas.

 Waller notes that as recently as August, forecasters, including those at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center, had been expecting a stronger than average El Nino to develop in the tropical Pacific.

A strong El Nino—that could have increased chances for wetter weather—would have been just what the winter wheat crop needs.

In addition, because 2011's Exceptional Drought zapped so much subsoil moisture, this winter wheat crop will need greater-than-average rainfall just to show an average performance.

"The markets by this time would usually start to decline, but we're still looking at enough uncertainty, especially with changes in the weather forecast, that we may not see as much rainfall as earlier expected this year."

Some hay
Parts of Texas that had some good rains earlier this fall were able to harvest some hay, says Anthony Munoz, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent for Schleicher County at Eldorado.

"Those of us in areas where we're looking to buy hay have a little more opportunity to be selective, as last year it was more 'take what you can get.'"

Water-robbing brush also could be more of a problem. Bob Lyons, AgriLife Extension range specialist at Uvalde, says areas of bare ground that resulted from the 2011 Texas Drought gave mesquite an opening for mesquite beans to sprout and increase mesquite brush. Time will determine the degree of that.

Meanwhile, Steve Lyons at the NWS says dry conditions could get worse in Texas from November to January 2013, and the drought especially could intensify from Lubbock north to Amarillo.

More information on the current Texas dry conditions and wildfire alerts can be found on the AgriLife Extension Agricultural Drought Task Force website.