Texas Crop Weather: New Dust Bowl Days Not Here Yet but Could Happen

    Though it may seem like a return of Dust Bowl days to some Texas High Plains farmers and ranchers, we’re not there yet — at least not quite, according to Dr. John Neilsen-Gammon, state climatologist, College Station.

    However, this week’s reports from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county agents do give evidence of some very difficult working conditions for producers in the Panhandle, South Plains and Rolling Plains regions.

    Mark Brown, AgriLife Extension agent for Lubbock County, reported only a trace of moisture for March with sustained high winds and gusts of 58 mph on March 18 accompanied by blowing dust.

    Rick Auckerman, AgriLife Extension agent for Deaf Smith County in the western Panhandle, said wind speeds of 30 to 50 mph bore down on the county for most of the week, and producers were running out of tools to stop soil from blowing away.

    Dr. Kevin Appel, a Panhandle optometrist, took this photo of a dust storm blowing in from the west near Canyon on March 18. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo courtesy of Dr. Kevin Appel)

    Dr. Kevin Appel, a Panhandle optometrist, took this photo of a dust storm blowing in from the west near Canyon on March 18. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo courtesy of Dr. Kevin Appel)

    Jerry Coplen, AgriLife Extension agent for Knox County, west of Wichita Falls, noted cotton producers were trying to prepare planting beds in between dust storms.

    Nielsen-Gammon said, “Over the past few weeks, the dust seems to be mainly picked up from southeastern Colorado and eastern New Mexico, so we’re not having a problem with widespread soil loss in Texas so far, but it’s something that could happen if conditions don’t allow for spring green-up, which they haven’t yet.”

    Auckerman noted that though it may feel like a return of the Dust Bowl days as fences are being covered up by sand and dirt in Deaf Smith County, modern producers have a lot more tools to fight blows, including U.S. Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve Program grassland.

    But on much of regular farmland, there isn’t a lot of growth to hold the dirt in place, Auckerman said.

    There hasn’t been green-up of grasses because December through February have been the tenth driest on record in the last ten years, Nielsen-Gammon said. And March doesn’t seem be turning that trend around.

    “The last time it was drier (the first quarter of the year) was in 1996, which was the start of this string of droughts that we’ve been having,” he said.

    The other issue that continues to hover critically on the horizon is a possible battle between towns and agriculture over extremely limited reservoir levels, Nielsen-Gammon said.

    “Reservoir levels are lower this time of year than they have been previously during this drought,” he said. “If we don’t see summer months of more than average rainfall, we will likely see conflicts between agricultural and municipal/industrial uses.”

    On a good news note, the Southern and Southeastern parts of the state are doing much better, he said. And parts of West Texas have gotten some decent rains during the past year.

    “But most of the Panhandle has averaged less than 50 percent of normal for the last three years,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

    AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

    Central: Most counties reported fair soil moisture. Overall, rangeland, pastures and crops were in fair condition. Livestock were also rated fair. Pastures throughout the region had large amounts of dead vegetation due to the dry winter. Livestock were in fair to good condition and still being supplemented with hay and feed. Winter wheat was recovering from freeze damage. Producers continued to struggle with reducing cow numbers based on dry conditions. Corn emerged, but stands were spotty as not all seed had enough moisture to germinate.

    Coastal Bend: The week began with light rain followed by some 70-degree sunny days and ended with temperatures dropping back into the low 50s. The earlier warm temperatures along with adequate soil moisture were beneficial to winter pastures and volunteer clover. Farmers were applying herbicide to control broom weed. Some were fertilizing hay fields. Planting of row crops continued at a brisk pace. Growers had nearly finished planting corn, with sorghum and rice planting about half done. No cotton was planted yet. Pastures began to green up. Livestock continued to sell well at local auctions.

    East: Temperatures around the region continued to vary widely, as did pasture conditions. In some instances, the warmer temperatures stimulated some forages to grow, and trees to leaf out and open blooms. But elsewhere, cold nighttime temperatures were preventing summer forages from breaking dormancy. Producers began preparing hay pastures. Many counties reported rain. Low-lying pastures remained soggy in some areas. Wet soils also made working conditions difficult for logging operations. Cattle and goats showed good body condition. Cows were still calving. In some areas, producers were still feeding hay and supplements since there was not enough grass to help the cattle nutritionally. In others, cattle were abandoning hay for greened up grass. Hay supplies were getting low. Vegetable planting increased. Feral hogs continued causing damage.

    Far West: The week began very dry and windy with colder temperatures, then the weather became milder. Planting of already prepared cotton fields was expected to begin the first week of April. Alfalfa was growing, but pecan trees were still dormant. Fall-planted onions were at the four-leaf stage and growing. Generally, cattle were doing well, with ranchers beginning to brand and vaccinate calves in earlier calving herds. Stockers were doing fairly well, with little sickness but not gaining quite as well as expected.

    North: Topsoil moisture ranged from short to adequate. An average of 1.5 inches of rain fell across the region, giving some relief to drought conditions. Warmer temperatures combined with the rain were very beneficial to wheat and winter annual pastures. Most fields were greening up and growing. Corn and soybean planting was underway. Hunt County reported corn planting was completed. Livestock were in good condition. Camp County reported issues with gophers as well as feral hogs. Titus County reported honeybees were very active.

    Panhandle: Dry and windy conditions continued with near-average temperatures with no moisture received. Soil moisture was mostly very short. High winds dried out soils, which limited farmers preparing the fields for the upcoming season. They were still trying to apply fertilizer, compost and manure under windy conditions. Deaf Smith County reported soil temperatures were rising, with most reporting stations reading 49 to 52 degrees — perfect soil temperatures for weed germination. Winter wheat under irrigation was progressing well, with growers running center pivots more frequently as daytime temperatures rose. Ochiltree County wheat was declining. Rangeland remained dormant, and livestock producers were still supplementing cattle. Stockers were being placed on graze-out wheat where available or moved to feed yards.

    Rolling Plains: Some areas reported rain — as much as 2 inches in one county – which greatly improved soil moisture and promoted wheat growth. Generally though, drought conditions persisted, with fields so dry they were hard to till and stock water tanks remained low or dry. Pastures needed moisture to bring out summer grasses and supply enough grazing for livestock. Area lakes and ponds also needed runoff. Livestock were in good condition with producers supplying supplemental feed daily. However, hay supplies were dwindling, and winter wheat grazing in some areas was nearly played out. Peach trees were blooming. Burn bans remained in effect in several counties.

    South: Weather was mostly cloudy, windy and cool in the mornings, warming in the afternoons, without much rainfall other than light showers and drizzle. In the northern part of the region, soil moisture was short to very short with the exception of Live Oak County where it was 60 percent adequate. Rangeland and pastures were in fair condition with some spring greening, but not much overall. Some areas reported a decline in cattle body condition scores. Stock tank water levels also declined, and supplemental feeding of livestock continued. Oats were 65 percent headed and in fair condition, but winter wheat was not doing very well. In Atascosa County, 35 percent of corn and 30 percent of sorghum had been planted. In Frio County corn planting was wrapped up, and potato, corn, wheat and oat crops were under irrigation. Live Oak County reported 90 percent of winter wheat crops being in good condition. In the eastern par t of the region, soil moisture ranged from 50 percent short to 100 percent adequate. Fifty percent of sorghum in Kleberg and Kenedy counties was planted. In Jim Wells County, range and pastures significantly improved but still needed some soil moisture and warmth to help improve forage production. Wheat growth in that county accelerated, but yield potential remained uncertain due to the dry spell earlier in the growing period. In the western part of the region, soil moisture ranged from 50 percent adequate to 100 percent short. Most counties reported rangeland to be in fair condition, except for Zapata County where the potential for wildfires was high. Livestock producers in Webb County continued culling cattle lightly to allow time for forage recovery. Oats were green in the Maverick County area, and wheat and oat crops were about 40 to 60 percent headed in Zavala County. Most of the counties in the southern part of the region reported adequate soil moisture except for Starr Count y, where they were 70 percent short. Rangeland and pastures were good to fair throughout the southern counties, with the exception of poor conditions reported by Starr County. In Hidalgo County, the harvesting of sugarcane, citrus and vegetables continued.

    South Plains: The region had wide temperature variations, high, gusty winds and blowing dirt. Highs reached the mid-80s, with lows dropping into the mid-20s. Cold fronts brought haboobs (dust storms), with walls of blowing dirt as winds gusted to 58 mph. All in all, it made for miserable conditions for producers trying to prepare fields for this season’s cotton crop. Winter wheat was suffering from the drought, with some plant diseases observed. Livestock producers continued to provide supplemental feed to cattle. A common comment was that conditions were reminiscent of the Dust Bowl days.

    Southeast: Soil moisture was mostly in the adequate range, but some counties reported from 40 percent very short to as much as 100 percent adequate. Rangeland and pasture ratings varied widely too, from very poor to excellent, with good to fair ratings being the most common. Rainfall amounts varied, with some counties such as Galveston getting heavy showers while Orange County had moderate amounts. In Harris County, rain delayed planting of corn and sorghum. Some fields were dry enough to resume planting later in the week, but more heavy rain was forecast. In Brazoria County, high winds continued to take from soils what little precipitation had been received. In Chambers County, there were attempts to plant rice, but the soil remained too wet to do so. Montgomery County producers were trying to control cool-season clovers that were in the way of their efforts. In Walker County, the cool-season forages were beginning t o take o ff. Clover was looking very good following rains. Small grain pastures were producing well. Stone fruit and pear trees were blooming or had already bloomed. In Brazos County, the slightly warmer soils allowed corn to be planted.

    Southwest: Dry conditions persisted. Pastures were greening up, but more rain was needed to replenish subsoil moisture. Peaches were blooming again after the hard freeze the previous week. Corn planting was progressing. Vegetable growers expected to start planting the first of April if warm weather continued. All wildlife and livestock had to be given supplemental feed and water if they were to maintain body condition.

    West Central: Severe drought conditions continued throughout the region. Soil moisture was very low, and extreme wildfire danger grew. However, temperatures were mild, and there were some scattered showers reported in isolated areas. Fieldwork and preparations for spring planting were under way. Cotton producers were plowing fields and spraying weeds. Dryland wheat was declining and showing signs of drought stress. Irrigated wheat looked very good. Rangeland and pastures were in poor condition and also declining. Some warm-season grasses were beginning to break dormancy. Livestock remained in fair condition with continued supplemental feeding. Grape growers were pruning and training vines.

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