Prolonged Drought Makes Farmers, Ranchers Rethink Strategies

Worst drought in Texas history has farmers and stockmen up against a wall.

Published on: Aug 24, 2011

By mid-August only scattered showers had been seen in Texas with no general rainfall across the state. Many had still experienced almost no rain since last October. The worst stretch of drought in Texas history was taking its toll.

State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon lamented officially that Texas is suffering through "the most severe one-year drought on record."

Nielsen-Gammon also noted during August that Texas had just come off the hottest July in the state's history.

Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples observed the rough road.

HES GLAD FOR WATER. Only 15% of the cotton acreage at Cross Farms is irrigated, but during the most severe stretch of Exceptional Drought in Texas history, Darrell Cross was sure glad to have that for his irrigated cotton ground this season at Ovalo, Texas.
HE'S GLAD FOR WATER. Only 15% of the cotton acreage at Cross Farms is irrigated, but during the most severe stretch of Exceptional Drought in Texas history, Darrell Cross was sure glad to have that for his irrigated cotton ground this season at Ovalo, Texas.

"Dr. Nielsen-Gammon's work confirms the harsh realities," Staples said. "The extreme heat and unprecedented dry weather are crippling agricultural operations in Texas upon which all Americans rely for food, fuel, clothing and other daily necessities."

The impact on Texas water is incalculable.

Darrell Cross
Darrell Cross

"This historic drought has depleted water resources, leaving our state's farmers and ranchers in a state of dire need," Staples said. "The damage to our economy already is measured in billions of dollars and continues to mount."

With Texas the largest cattle producer in the nation, the impact on beef is big.

"I cannot stress enough the critical need for forage to sustain the largest cattle herd in the nation," Staples said. "The suffering and desperate need for relief grows with the rising temperatures and record-breaking heat that continue to scorch Texas each passing day."

Tough to give up cows

After months of hanging on, Texas cattlemen are faced with the hard decision of whether or not to take their best cows to the market—after already culling the old and less productive animals.

Ted McCollum III, Texas AgriLife Extension beef cattle specialist, Amarillo, said a producer needs to know what the net productive value of the cow is based on its market value now and future productivity.

McCollum noted some producers may want to hunt for greener pastures elsewhere as a way to keep the nucleus of their cow herd.

Larry Redmon, Texas AgriLife Extension Service State forage specialist, College Station, said many cattlemen already have tried to cut feeding costs by culling their herds, and are just trying to hold onto enough good cows to rebuild their herds when the drought finally passes. But eventually, that's not going to work in such a prolonged Exceptional Drought—the worst category. Hay is just too scarce and too expensive.

Grazing or hay is virtually non-existent in many parts of Texas, and it's very costly to buy feed. Overall, it's costing producers "somewhere around $100 per month (per cow) to have these animals stay in the pasture and feed them."

That cost might be $20 to $22 per cow/calf pair in Mississippi, Louisiana, or Missouri. But even if it cost $25 or $30 per animal a month to board them there, that's still cheaper than $100 month, Redmon reflected.

Even when trucking the cattle to those states at about $3 to $3.50 a loaded mile, that's still a big savings if a rancher can find a good place in any of those states to pasture their best cows for a while.

Time for other work

Longtime Shackelford County Extension Agent Rocky Vinson of Albany said he has never witnessed anything as bad as the mercilessly drought that has gripped Texas for a year.

"It's just terrible," Vinson said.

Nevertheless, some ranchers have gotten busier than ever on range land—improving it to be ready to benefit when rainfall eventually replaces drought.

Vinson said some ranchers have been pushing brush with bulldozers or roller chopping and spraying prickly pear.  Hot, dry weather is a good time to fight prickly pear infestations—and Texas has had plenty of hot and dry.

Another major activity has been cleaning out stock tanks while they are dry. Not only does this help renovate the tanks and ponds to catch and hold rainwater when the great drought is broken, but it also helps lessen the chances of cattle bogging down in the mud of waterless tanks as they desperately search for a drink of water.

So a lot of ranchers are keeping mighty busy with these proactive projects they can do during a drought, Vinson noted, while they look for the return of rain.

Vinson has been around long enough to see great floods break great droughts, and that's what many old-timers are expecting, especially during hurricane season.

Farmers study options

Heading into the end of August, Taylor County, Texas cotton and wheat grower Steve Stockton was studying his alternatives.

With his dryland cotton crop wiped out from the drought, Stockton decided to "dry sow" some haygrazer on 120 acres during August and then hope rain would bring it up. If major rains do come, that haygrazer could make a lot of hay—and quickly—during warm fall months.

In addition, if general rains return soon, Stockton says he might plant all winter wheat on the remaining cropland this fall. Then in 2012, he could plant cotton back on the haygrazer ground.

Regardless of that, Stockton, who also raises cattle, has made plans to sow some early wheat in September on 64 acres of some cultivated land just aiming to get at least some winter forage for grazing his own cows as he tries to hang on to his herd.

If things go really well this fall with a return of moisture, Stockton says he might plant everything in winter wheat during October.

On the flipside, if another La Nina returns this fall and general rainfall doesn't return until next spring, Stockton said he then would consider planting all the cropland in cotton next year.

As Stockton sees it, many growers are in the same fix—if they are diversified, dryland farmers like him.

Darrell Cross of Cross Farms, Ovalo, Texas feels fortunate to have irrigation for 15% of his cotton acreage, and his FiberMax irrigated cotton was growing extremely fast because of record days over 100 degrees on the Rolling Plains.

The High Plains also reported irrigated cotton growing rapidly there with the heat unit accumulations being extremely high for this season's crop.

Gary Sanders, an Americot, Inc., sales representative in a vast area of the High Plains stretching from Lubbock to Muleshoe to Hereford, reported that most of the cotton in the so-called Triangle Area is at least three weeks ahead of average and growing rapidly.

"This will be the fastest crop I have seen," Sanders said. "Irrigated cotton condition is strictly being determined by the amount of water that it has obtained. In most of the lower water pivots, the cotton is basically burning up simply because there isn't enough water to keep up with the daily demand."

Because of the rapid growth and maturing of the 2011 crop, Sanders said instead of cotton harvest starting to roll big as it typically does in October up on the Plains, this year's cotton harvest already could kick in high gear in September.

More than 4 million acres of Texas' 7-½ million planted cotton acres were abandoned this season as an all-time record abandonment. That, and the speed of the crop, would indicate a quick harvest unless prolonged wet weather arrives this fall.

That's something that might interrupt what little Texas cotton harvest there is—but you can bet the state's ranchers would put on their slickers and dance in it.

Some good online sources

The Texas Department of Agriculture notes that for some good information on drought assistance, you can go online to www.TexasAgriculture.gov and download the Drought Resource Information Packet (DRIP).

For details about donating, selling, or locating hay or forage supplies, visit the Texas Department of Agriculture's Hay Hotline webpage also at www.TexasAgriculture.gov.

Texas A&M University also has an excellent source of information online on the historic Texas drought put together by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service Agricultural Drought Task Force at http://agrilife.tamu.edu/drought/.