Texas: New Weather Pattern Strengthens El Niño Rain Chances Through Winter

    Photo: Texas AgriLife

    Late October rains have practically wiped severe drought conditions from the face of Texas maps, and a new weather system is enhancing predictions of a wet El Niño winter, a weather expert says.

    Barry Goldsmith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Brownsville, said that the rare, record-breaking rain events fueled by Hurricane Patricia will leave Texas with “no significant drought.”

    “Hurricane Patricia notwithstanding, El Niño reared its atmospheric head right on que,” he said. “Other factors were involved, but the second half of October was classic El Niño, with rich moisture from the Gulf of Mexico drenching Texas with efficient rainfall.”

    Goldsmith said rainfall is most efficient when it originates deep in the tropics. When such rain falls often enough, it will soak into the soil and enhance reservoirs, lakes, creeks and streams.

    “Efficient rainfall is hugely beneficial for agriculture,” he said.

    Dr. Juan Anciso, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service fruit and vegetable specialist in Weslaco, said an end to the Texas drought is long overdue, but a wet winter might cause problems.

    “There are overwhelming positives to all this rainfall for agriculture statewide,” he said. “The great news is that it ends our drought, conditions the soils, fills reservoirs and limits irrigation. But the flip side is that some crops still out in the fields that got hit by hard rain suffered. Heavy rains for vegetable production here in South Texas, for example, flooded fields, set off plant diseases and ruined some production.”

    Anciso said a wet winter in extreme South Texas last year was a serious problem for vegetable production.

    “If we have another wet winter in the Rio Grande Valley, it will be another disaster for cabbage, onions and carrots,” he said.

    While increased rainfall from the warm waters of a strong El Niño late this year had been predicted, Goldsmith said, another weather pattern called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO, will strengthen El Niño’s chances for more efficient rainfall through January at least.

    Cattle in Brazos County seem to be enjoying water brought by heavy rainfall in late October that helped end severe drought in Texas. (Texas A&M AgriLife Communications photo by Kathleen Phillips)

    Cattle in Brazos County seem to be enjoying water brought by heavy rainfall in late October that helped end severe drought in Texas. (Texas A&M AgriLife Communications photo by Kathleen Phillips)

    “El Niño patterns that enhance the chance of rainfall can be fleeting,” he said. “But a moderate to strong PDO helps an El Niño maintain and even strengthen its rain-making abilities. And that appears to be what we’re seeing as of late October.”

    El Niño refers to warm Pacific Ocean waters in the tropics, while a PDO refers to El Niño-like patterns of climate variability in the mid-latitudes of the Pacific.

    Goldsmith said a strong PDO doubles down an El Niño.

    “We haven’t seen a PDO of this strength since the mid- to late-1990s, and for El Niño, it’s like having some caffeine, then drinking an energy drink. It’s a double shot. In this case, this PDO will lock down a wetter-than-average Texas from roughly November through February.”

    As the season cools, Goldsmith said, it decreases the chance of torrential rainfalls like those seen recently in Willacy and Wimberley counties.

    “The nature of the rain we’re in for later this fall and winter is more gradual,” he said. “Between November and February, we’ll likely see 3 to 5 inches of rain in one or more events somewhere in Texas, but it will take up to several days, not a few hours. We can’t rule out a sudden thunderstorm, but it will be difficult to create a deluge, say 12 inches of rain in four or five hours that quickly floods because it overwhelms drainage systems and can’t flow away.”

    Goldsmith said the current El Niño will likely oscillate “back to neutral” in May through July, 2016, but chances are high that growers will have little or no need for irrigation water this winter into early spring.

    “It’s been said that Texas is in perpetual drought interrupted by the occasional devastating flood,” he said. “Well, this year, 2015, has been wet overall, with our share of occasional devastating floods and unfortunately, dozens of fatalities. But in late October alone, Texas shifted from large areas of extreme and exceptional drought to some areas of abnormally dry, and only a few pockets of moderate drought — a much improved situation.

    “Drastic category shifts like that are rare in such a relatively short period of time, but the accumulation and efficiency of the late October rainfall was sufficient for the shift,” Goldsmith said.

    AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

    South: Rainfall halted field activities in the Cameron County area, where 4 to 7 inches of rainfall were reported. Saturated fields amounted to flooding with hay left in a lot of the fields. Onion, lettuce and tomato crops were reported as progressing well. Hidalgo County also received a lot of rainfall with some isolated areas receiving a bit too much. Starr County received scattered rainfall amounting from 1.5 to 4 inches. Fall crops within the area continued to progress well. Range and pastures in Starr County and surrounding counties continued to benefit from all the rainfall. Soil moisture conditions were reported as 100 percent surplus in Cameron County, 65 to 100 percent adequate in Hidalgo County and 90 percent adequate in Starr County. Atascosa County received quite a bit of rainfall throughout the county. Frio County received scattered rainfall at the end of the week. Peanut harvesting continued throughout the week but was halted at the end of the week due to the rainfall. Wheat and oats planting also continued during the week, and range and pastures dramatically improved – also as a result of the rainfall. La Salle County received a lot of rainfall on Saturday. In McMullen County, soil moisture conditions continued to improve as well as grazing conditions on range and pastures. Rainfall within the area has been reported as slightly above average for this time of the year. Duval County reported there not being many crops in that part of the region, but U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency was asking about the possibility of any winter wheat being planted in the county. Jim Wells County received some light rainfall during the week. The rainfall helped further improve soil moisture conditions within the area. An average of 4 inches of rainfall fell across Kleberg and Kenedy counties, helping fill livestock tanks on grazing pastures. Range and pastures in Kleberg, Kenedy and surrounding counties have improved as a result of continual rainfall. With the help of continual rainfall, conditions continued to improve in the Dimmit County area. Maverick County received more showers this past week. Coastal Bermuda grass remained green, and farmers continued cutting for bale production. Winter crops, such as some ryegrass and oats, were also being planted within the area. In Zavala County, light rain occurred at the end of the week, slowing down some farm operations. For the most part, most farming operations within the area remained workable. Also in Zavala County, cotton ginning activities were winding down. Wichita pecan-variety harvesting was active. Livestock producers reported native range and pastures responding well to recent rains, and cabbage harvesting preparations took place.

    Coastal Bend:  Recent rainfall, 4-8 inches, provided a deep soaking moisture. Winter wheat and oat planting are almost complete. Nice rains over the past 10 days have really improved range and pasture conditions, as well as winter pasture establishment. Rain put a halt to the ratoon rice harvest. Pecan harvest has been delayed due to wet weather. Livestock were in good shape, but some auctions were suspended due to wet conditions and not being able to get cattle out.

    Southwest:  Recent rain has been what most of the area needed. Rainfall amounts ranged between 1.04 and 13 inches across the district. Some areas experienced heavy storms, tornado warnings and flash floods. Extra soil moisture has provided an opportunity for producers to continue winter planting with hopes that this rainy trend continues. Livestock conditions remain fair.

    Southeast: Walker County received a widespread rainfall ranging from to 4-5 inches this past week and weekend, which has helped greatly. Additional moisture is still needed as the cracks in clay soils have not closed. Grimes County recently had a deluge of rain that left standing water throughout the majority of the county. Some residents reported 8 inches of rain in two days. There is still standing water in some hay meadows. In Montgomery County, the slow rains of last weekend placed moisture in the soil profile and the 2 to 3 inches this weekend topped it off and created runoff for ponds that were down to 2011 levels. In Waller County, the heavy rainfall from last weekend provided the necessary moisture needed for winter crops production, so new growth in the pastures is expected. Brazoria County received some additional rain and lots of water is still standing from the previous weekend. Galveston County experienced extremely heavy rains with standing water in numerous areas of the county. Orange County received 10 inches of rain within three days. Soil-moisture levels throughout the region varied widely, mostly in the adequate to surplus range with adequate being the most common. San Jacinto, Walker and Lee counties reported 100 percent adequate. Rangeland and pasture ratings varied widely too, mostly from fair to poor, with fair ratings being the most common. San Jacinto reported 100 percent excellent.

    South Plains: Floyd County received over a half inch of rain, keeping farmers out of the field a day or two. The moisture helped the winter wheat. Cotton harvest was in full swing and will continue at a steady pace as long as the rain waits. Recent showers in Hale County have limited producers’ ability to harvest. As conditions dry out, harvest will continue. Wet, late-October weather has put a damper on getting cotton harvest going and finishing up the end of corn and milo harvest in Swisher County. Overall, the crop condition is staying stable, however the driving wind and rain of late were a concern to cotton farmers who had just applied boll openers and defoliants. Time will tell if it dries up enough to get the cotton out in a timely fashion. The moisture helped the new wheat crop and in most fields, cattle were turned out. The early season vigor is phenomenal for early planted wheat. Corn yields for the county were hovering between 210 and 230 bushels per acre. Milo harvest stopped a bit to enable farmers to get corn out. Although the yield was average, the sugarcane aphid infestations of late summer negatively affected the speed at which combines could get through fields. Cochran County reports moisture levels were adequate, and producers have initiated harvest again. Peanut and corn harvests were finished while cotton, sorghum and sunflower harvests continue. Pasture and rangelands were in good condition. Producers in Lubbock County were only able to harvest for two to three days this week prior to receiving more rainfall totaling about 0.5 inch on Oct. 30. Cotton harvest was estimated at 35 percent complete. Some grain sorghum and corn fields were still not harvested. Wheat fields have benefited from all the recent moisture, but producers need some dry weather now to complete harvest. Cotton harvest resumed in some areas of Garza County around mid-week, but light showers fell Oct. 29 and Oct. 30 with a continued chance the next day, so harvest will be delayed. Cotton yields were better than expected early in the season mainly due to a good, hot September that allowed late-planted cotton to mature. Range and pastures were in good to excellent condition and should improve over the next few weeks with the rainfall received the last few days. Cool-season grasses were beginning to grow in native range and forage quality will improve. Cattle were in mostly good to excellent condition. In Mitchell County, rainfall totals of about 2 inches were received around the county. Cotton harvest has been stop-and-go with work happening between rainfall events. Pastures have really turned around from three weeks ago, and winter wheat has a lot of moisture to grow on before cattle get put out on it. Scurry County received about 0.7 inches of rain. Temperatures were mild, but cotton harvest was halted due to the wet conditions.

    Rolling Plains: Rain fell across the area for the second straight week with amounts totaling 5 inches in some counties. The rains put a halt on producers trying to harvest their cotton, but dry-planted wheat really benefited. Winter wheat planting continued. Fall cattle work is winding down. Range and pastures were in mostly good condition although in some pastures livestock were being supplemented. Livestock are in good condition and selling well. Significant rainfall over the past two weeks has caused flooding and erosion issues.

    Central: Fields were too wet to plant small grains. Many fields planted prior to the rain will require replanting. All tanks and creeks were full. The Brazos River rose to its banks but remained inside. Wheat and oats were coming up, but a lot still needed to be planted. Warm-season grass fields were greening up. Ryegrass was germinating and emerging in pastures. Cattle remain in good condition. Counties reported: soil moisture, good, 100 percent; overall range and pasture conditions, good, 95 percent; overall crop conditions, good, 85 percent; and overall livestock conditions, good, 95 percent.

    Far West: District-wide the rains have affected cotton production as well as the planting of winter wheat and the harvesting of pecans.  Producers are anxious to get back into the fields to finish up cotton production. While it was holding up fairly well as far as staying in the bur, the color grades were dropping. Producers in Upton County were assessing the flood damage. Livestock producers were finishing up fall work, with weaning weights and pregnancy rates on heifers and mature cows all being very good this year. The overall condition of cattle was good. Pastures and rangeland were in good condition.

    East: Counties across the region continued to receive much needed rain. Henderson County received 15-25 inches of rain. Flooding damage was reported across the county. The Trinity River was still in flood stage. Some producers reported livestock loss. Lakes and ponds were overfilled with a few dam breaches. There was significant private road damage. Other counties received varying amounts ranging from 3-12 inches. The wet conditions have helped winter pastures and fall truck crops. Gardeners with winter gardens were seeing them come up. Pond levels were rising. Most counties reported pasture and range conditions as poor. Subsoil and topsoil moisture was mostly adequate. Winter forages were up and looking good for this time of year. The abundant supply of moisture and warm nightly temperatures were enough to cause some warm-season forages to rebound. Late crops of tomatoes were being harvested. Livestock were in fair to good condition with some supplementation taking place. Fall calving and cattle work was underway. Houston County reported calf prices were steady compared with last week. The slaughter market was down. Anderson County reported some problems with cattle consuming acorns. Pine and oak trees were dying throughout Anderson County. Feral hogs were moving and causing some damage.

    West Central: Weather conditions have been very mild with rains reported in most all areas throughout the weekend. Soil moisture conditions improved due to recent rains. Stock tanks caught much needed runoff. Cotton harvest was underway but was delayed due to wet conditions. Harvest will continue as field conditions allow. Abundant rainfall has improved growing conditions for small grains. Small-grain planting will continue as fields dry out. Range and pasture conditions were improving everyday with winter grasses and forages showing green-up. Livestock remained in fair to good condition. Supplemental feeding continued as producers prepared for winter conditions.

    North: Topsoil moisture varied from short to adequate, and some counties reported surplus. Temperatures were in the 70’s all week with night temperatures in the low 50’s. Projections were for more rainfall across the county with 12 inches of rain expected in some parts of the county. A good bit of winter wheat was planted last week across the county. Nighttime temperatures were slowing grass growth so producers continued supplemental feeding. Some producers were considering one more cutting of hay but were concerned the quality would be bad. Changes in weather patterns caused minor stress on livestock. Ponds and lakes were full, and it was too muddy to work in fields. Crickets were out in force, with several calls about what to do with them. Feral hog activity was on the rise.

    Panhandle: Producers across the region moved back into the fields after receiving anywhere from 0.3 inch of rain in the northwest to as much as 10 inches in the southwest counties. Weekly rain events slowed harvest of corn and sorghum, and concerns of lodging in some fields increased. There were still many acres of corn standing in the fields and grain sorghum waiting on combines. Irrigated grain sorghum was lodging in some areas, and some sprouting of the grain sorghum crop was reported. Sunflower harvest was expected to begin, but some areas were reporting reduced yields due to hail and weather-related issues. The winter wheat crop was reported as excellent, with the exception of a few areas where the recent rainfall buried the seed too deep, forcing replanting. Above-average rainfall for the year started to replenish deep soil moisture for the first time since 2010 across much of the region. Stocker operators were beginning to take yearling cattle off grass and going to market, as well as weaning spring calves. Cow-calf producers were restocking hay inventories and preparing for the winter season.

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