Texas Crop Weather: Stronger El Niño May Bring Another Drenched Winter

    A super-strong El Niño now brewing in the tropical Pacific will likely bring another rain-drenched winter to large parts of Texas, said Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, state climatologist, College Station.

    But the climate scientist said he doesn’t expect a repeat of the 2015 wet spring will necessarily follow.

    The El Niño of 2014-2015 was only moderately strong, but the rain it brought, followed by a very wet spring, effectively ended the Texas drought. Meanwhile, the 2015-2016 El Niño is shaping up to be a record breaker, said Nielsen-Gammon, who is also a Regents Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University.

    “So far, it is the strongest ever for this time of year,” he said. “The (climate) models that have gotten it right so far, are forecasting it to continue to intensify. So it seems like it could be among the five strongest ever going into this upcoming winter.”

    Typically, the development of an El Niño begins with warmer ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific — at least about 1 degree Fahrenheit above normal, Nielsen-Gammon said. The situation, once it begins, usually results in a “feedback situation” that further raises ocean temperatures and magnifies the effect.

    “As the warm temperatures spread across the Pacific, the winds weaken, allowing the warm water to remain at the surface longer before losing any of its heat,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

    At this point, tropical Pacific temperatures are already 3 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, Nielsen-Gammon said. However, a much stronger-than-normal El Niño does not necessarily mean the rain it brings will be proportionally more.

    A NASA image of current sea surface temperature anomalies shows the building of an extremely strong El Niño in red. (Graphic courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA)

    A NASA image of current sea surface temperature anomalies shows the building of an extremely strong El Niño in red. (Graphic courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA)

    There have been strong El Niños in the recent past that did not drench the state.

    “The El Niños of 1982-1983 and 1997-98 were the really strong ones, and nothing really special happened in those years, except for above-normal rainfall and cooler temperatures, which is what usually happens November through March, as long as there’s at least a moderate El Niño,” he said.

    But it’s almost a certainty that Texas will have another winter of above-average rainfall.

    “There’s only about a 10 percent chance, according to the Climate Prediction Center, that the current El Niño could weaken enough that we won’t have El Niño conditions this winter,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “This is about as solid a bet as you can get for a six-month forecast.”

    However, he added, the El Niño won’t bring any relief during this summer from the dry conditions much of Texas has had for the past month and half.

    AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

    Central: Rangeland, pastures, crops and livestock were all in good condition. Soil moisture was generally rated as fair. Daytime highs neared 100 degrees with no rain forecast. The silage harvest continued. Sugarcane aphids were found in grain sorghum fields, but their numbers were not as high as last year. Large amounts of hay were harvested, and the second cutting was in progress. The corn and sorghum silage harvests wound down.

    Coastal Bend: Hot, dry conditions sapped surface moisture, lowering potential soybean yields. The hot, dry weather made for good harvest conditions, but much sorghum had yet to dry down. Producers harvested corn instead. Cotton looked good, but varying maturities were still evident. Some rice was harvested. Lots of hay was being harvested as the growing season wound down. Pastures were withering under in the high heat. Livestock were in good condition.

    East: The region remained hot and dry with temperatures topping 100 degrees in some counties. Soil moisture continued to decrease as more counties rated subsoil and topsoil moisture as short. Pond and creek levels dropped. Producers were still baling hay, though there was little grass regrowth because of lack of rain. Yields from future cuttings were expected to be lower in most counties. Armyworms were spotted in Wood County. Bermuda grass stem maggots were found in Upshur County. Blueberry harvesting neared completion. Some producers were preparing fields for fall-vegetable planting. Livestock were in good condition. Livestock producers continued selling market-ready calves and cull cows. Horn flies continued to pester cattle. Feral hog activity slowed with the hot, dry weather.

    Far West: All counties had high temperatures in the triple digits. The heat was rapidly drying out pastures and rangeland in some areas, while others received rain to offset the effects of the heat. Howard County remained dry, but some counties received showers. Brewster and Jeff Davis counties received daily showers that individually were not very significant but added up to 2 to 3 inches. Culberson County received spotty showers, with isolated areas in the northern part of the county getting more than 3 inches. El Paso County also received scattered isolated showers. Hudspeth County received scattered showers and thunderstorms with microbursts and high winds that blew down 57 electric poles. Presidio County received thunderstorms with high winds and lightning. The lightning raised concerns of wildfire, but the storms also brought from 0.5 inch to 2 inches of rain across the county. Reagan County did not receive rain, and pastures and rangeland there were starting to dry out, but row crops remained in good shape. Upton County received 0.5 inch of rain. Watermelons will be harvested soon there, and cotton and pecans were doing well with continued irrigation.

    North: Hot and dry weather left topsoil moisture short to adequate. Highs were at 100 degrees, though a cold front was forecast for the end of July. Corn, soybeans and grain sorghum were quickly maturing. Pastures were holding up but without rain soon, they were expected to quickly decline. Hay producers continued to bale Bermuda grass hay and haygrazer. Blacklands clay soils were cracking as they dried out, but stock-water tanks remained full, and calves were doing great. Sugarcane aphid populations were rising in grain and forage sorghums. Most grain sorghum farmers were spraying for the aphids as well as head worms. Grasshopper pressure was heavy in some areas.

    Panhandle: A trace to as much as 5 inches of rain fell in isolated areas, and the region remained hot, windy and humid. The hot weather helped cotton catch up on heat units, and the dry weather allowed the last wheat to be harvested. Peanuts were pegging and putting on a heavy nut load. Where there was rain, weed pressure increased, but also promoted corn growth. Ochiltree County received rain early in the week, which allowed irrigators to stop pumping. All summer crops looked great, but most were behind in development for this time of year. Sherman County received rain amounts anywhere from 1.5 to 5 inches, which wasn’t enough to allow irrigation to cease but was enough to stall fieldwork. Grasshoppers and spider mite counts were up, which kept ground and aerial sprayers busy. Cattle looked good. Horn flies continued to be a problem.

    Rolling Plains: Grasshoppers in the region made national news, and producers were feeling the pain. The insects were destroying edges of cotton fields, and damaging pecan orchards and pastures. Daytime temperatures inched closer to 100 degrees, which was good news for the cotton crop. Pastures and rangelands remained in good to excellent condition because of earlier rains. Though pastures were still green, landowners were concerned about there being an abundance of fuel for wildfires. A few small fires popped during the last couple of weeks but were quickly contained. However, if dry weather sets in, the wildfire risk may increase during the fall. Livestock were in good to excellent condition as pastures offered plenty of grazing, and stock-water tanks remained full. The peach harvest was ongoing.

    South: High winds and hot temperatures were rapidly browning rangeland and pasture grasses, and drying out soils. In the northern part of the region, cotton was flowering, and early planted cotton was opening bolls. Early planted peanuts were pegging. Bermuda grass hay was being cut and baled. Some corn and sorghum harvesting began. Stock-water tank levels remained mostly good. Cattle remained in good condition. Soil moisture was short in Atascosa, Frio, Live Oak and McMullen counties, and adequate in La Salle County. In the eastern part of the region, March-planted corn and grain sorghum were being harvested. Producers were expecting yields to be slightly above average. Soil moisture continued to decline but still varied from short to surplus. In the western part of the region, cotton producers were heavily irrigating. Despite the dry conditions, forage availability remained good enough that livestock producers did not have to provide supplemental feed. Watermelon harvesting was completed, and corn and sorghum harvesting was very active. Soil moisture was adequate in Duval County and short to very short in Zavala County. In the southern part of the region, corn harvesting was finished in some areas and grain sorghum harvesting was in full swing. Some cotton was opening bolls, while other fields were still under irrigation. Sugarcane was also being irrigated. Soil moisture ranged from short to adequate in the southern counties.

    South Plains: Cotton was developing well throughout the region with the hot weather and irrigation. In Floyd County, cotton just began to bloom. The area received light showers, but more moisture was needed. Grain crops continued to look great. In Hale County, most crops, including cotton, could use more moisture, as it has been about two weeks since the last rain. While still behind, cotton has been catching up. Cochran County had both good subsoil and topsoil moisture. However, hail destroyed several hundred acres of cotton southwest of Morton. Pest activity picked up this week with scouts consistently finding lygus bugs in cotton. Sorghum was overrun with sugarcane aphids. Pasture and rangeland were still in good condition. Crosby County needed rain. Lubbock County hasn’t received rain since July 11, and non-irrigated cotton fields could use some moisture. Heat unit accumulation since early June caught up to the long-term average despite there being no days that reached 100 degrees. In Garza County, subsoil moisture was still good in most areas. Cattle were in good to excellent condition. Scurry County cotton was growing fast but needed rain very soon.

    Southeast: The region remained hot and dry. Soil moisture was mostly short to adequate, with short being the most common. Rangeland and pasture ratings varied widely too but were mostly fair to good, with good ratings being the most common. In Walker County, subsoil moisture was rapidly dropping. Hay harvesting continued. The first hay cutting had low nutritional value due to excessive rains. In Brazos County, corn and sorghum crops were quickly maturing. In Montgomery County, hay was being harvested, but regrowth was short. Chambers County rice was progressing. The dry weather was good for the headed rice in the flowering stage. During the entirety of spring and start of the summer it was too wet to cut hay or even drive in a field. But by the end of July, when most producers were finally able to take a first cutting, fields looked drought stricken and soil conditions were already too dry and hard for fieldwork.

    Southwest: With hot and windy weather, soils were drying out rapidly, and vegetation was beginning to show signs of stress. Temperatures hovered around 100 degrees, raising concerns of wildfire. No rain was forecast. However, the drier weather made for good harvest conditions. The corn harvest was in full swing. Producers were preparing to harvest grain sorghum. Livestock were in fair condition, though there were still some issues with stomach worms.

    West Central: Highs were in the triple digits, rapidly depleting topsoil moisture, but row crops remained in good condition due to heavy spring rains contributing to subsoil moisture. Rangeland and pastures, however, began to show signs of moisture and heat stress. Hay harvesting continued with good yields. Ranchers had baled most of the available hay with an outstanding number of both square and round bales made per acre. Grain sorghum looked pretty good, but sugarcane aphid numbers increased, and producers began spraying to slow the insect down. Stock-water tanks still had plenty of water. Livestock were in fair to good condition. Grasshopper invasion became an issue in some areas. Overall though, cotton looked good, with relatively low insect pressure.

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