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Even with significant spring rainfall, drought effects linger in SW Texas

Southwest Texas received more than twice the usual long-term average rainfall in May and the region moved to 125 percent of the year-to-date cumulative average.

But, even this rainy spring is not enough to make up for almost two years of drought.

“The Southwest Texas region remains dry in relation to long term cumulative rainfall and in terms of the impact severe drought has had in degradation of pastures and ranges,” says Jose Pena, Texas Extension economist/management at Uvalde.

The May rainfall helped “green-up the region,” he says, with improved forage availability. It also boosted corn, cotton and grain sorghum. Clear weather in late May and early June also spurred crop progress throughout the area.

“The agricultural production outlook has improved significantly,” Pena says.

Improvements give producers hope. But they are not out of the danger zone yet.

Farming operations are expected to recover with the recent rainfall, he says, but pastureland and ranges may not get back to normal for years. “Some may not recover without major improvements. Livestock operators may have to delay re-stocking until 2008.”

The Uvalde area began this drought cycle in November, 2005, “and has remained in severe drought (75 percent of average annual rainfall) since then. Even with close to 6 inches of rain in May, the last 19 months (November, 2005 to May 30, 2007) marked the driest period on record, with cumulative rainfall at about 62 percent of long term average.”

He says the 365-day average cumulative rainfall since November, 2005 is 11.55 inches, “53 percent below the long term annual average of about 24.34 inches.”

The shortage exists in an ecosystem that was created by and depends on average rainfall patterns.

Even with above average rainfall this year, Pena says forage supplies are low. “Even with minimum livestock stocking rates, degradation of forage production as a result of the extended drought will continue to have serious implications on agricultural production in Southwest Texas.”

Wildlife populations also suffer.

“Population densities are down significantly,” Pena says. “But the improved forage situation could mean an improved fawn crop this year.”

That's good news for many ranchers who depend on wildlife resources management for a good percentage of their income. ‘“It has become the economic lifeline for many ranching operations,” Pena says.

Short term rainfall excess is not a long term solution. “In the final analysis, the real effect of any drought is the influence on vegetation and the vegetation's ability to recover. That means the vegetation rootstock or seed must survive the drought. Seed/rootstock must be protected during periods of reduced rainfall.”

Reducing grazing pressure helps preserve seed/rootstock, he says.

“But recovery also depends on abundant and timely rainfall,” not just occasional periods of wet weather. Reduced stocking rates need higher than average rainfall for several years to assure recovery.

“This appears unlikely,” Pena says. “And even with above average rainfall, recovery may be difficult.”

Ranchers have cut back on major range and pasture investments and improvements they were making in the 1990s.

“As a result, it appears that the ecosystem in a large portion of Southwest Texas will be significantly altered and become even more economically dependent on wildlife management.”

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