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Excess rainfall: both good and bad for Texas agriculture

COLLEGE STATION—Agricultural producers are trying to make hay while the sun shines. The problem is it won’t shine long enough.

“Texas is out of the drought, finally,” said Travis Miller, Texas Cooperative Extension agronomist. “Unfortunately, the eastern U.S. and western U.S. are in drought, but we’ve been blessed with more than a normal amount of rainfall for a good time now.”

According to the Spatial Sciences Laboratory at Texas A&M University, the central, southern and western parts of Texas have received above-normal amounts of rainfall from January through July.

Some areas, particularly in the areas south of San Antonio and between Temple-Killeen and San Angelo received more than 300 percent of the normal rainfall during those months, said Allan Jones, director of the Texas Water Resources Institute.

And some areas, particularly in the area around Victoria and upper East Texas received in excess of 4 feet of rain between January and July, Jones said. The rest of the state shows near-normal amounts.

“Virtually all of the state is in good moisture conditions or excess moisture conditions,” Miller said.

Rainfall years such as this rarely happen; in fact, the state was recuperating from two drier-than-normal years, Jones said. The rainfall has done a good job of filling reservoirs and soil profiles.

“If you’re in the cattle business, I’d say the rain is a good thing, with the exception of the hay crop,” Miller said.

Some producers, particularly in the eastern half of the state got a good cutting of hay in May.

“They haven’t been able to harvest a second cutting,” he said. “All of our hay barns were empty going into the season. It’s important that we get a significant hay harvest, which we should with the moisture we have had. But we haven’t had the weather to get it cut and cured for a couple of months now.”

Producers in the eastern half of the state can get up to three or four cuttings of hay per year in mid-May, late June, August and perhaps in late September, if conditions are right. Growers in the more arid and northern parts of the state get fewer.

The hay in the field now has been cut and in fields so long that it has spoiled. Or it is past maturity and has gotten stemmy and coarse. Its value has dropped, Miller said.

Pastures are the one “bright spot in the picture,” he said.

“If you’re a rancher, you might have gone the last six, eight, 10 years without significant rainfall to heal (pastures) over.”

“A lot of what we call ‘ice cream grasses,’ the good-quality perennial grasses, are just dead,” Miller said.

Perennial grass seed may be ready to germinate, “but oftentimes, with this kind of rainfall, the annual grasses jump out of the blocks a little faster, and it takes a little while for the perennials to get established again.”

Stock tanks are running over, he said.

“We still have some reservoirs in West Texas that would like to see more water. (And) there are a few areas out in West Texas that could see a little more rain, but few ranchers will ever turn down a good rain,” he said.

The cotton crop along the Gulf Coast is a concern, Miller said.

“The cotton is beginning to open. We’re getting a lot of boll rot in the lower positions, and we know we shed a lot of fruit from the cotton crop from flooded conditions,” he said. Cotton needs a lot of heat and sunlight to produce high-quality fiber, and the rainfall has caused the plants to grow quickly, so that it is “rank and growthy,” he said.

The High Plains cotton crop was planted late, and growth has been slow due to cool and wet weather. Most of the cotton crop on the Plains is at least three weeks behind normal maturity, Miller said.

“That’s always a dangerous game because if you’re that far behind normal maturity, you always have the potential for early cool weather in the fall. Your growing season can get cut short before your cotton is mature,” he said.

“Statewide, I don’t see this as being a favorable cotton year,” he said.

“A lot of cotton can be made during that time,” he said.

The grain sorghum in South Texas has been a real concern, Miller said. Growers are more than a month behind with harvest.

“A lot of sorghum may not be harvested at all due to harvest delays, grain that is sprouting, and some that is moldy,” he said.

“We’ve had some real poor harvest conditions.”

Corn is being harvested on the Gulf Coast. The weather hasn’t greatly affected quality. “I think overall it’s going to be a pretty good corn year, but the sorghum has been disappointing because of the harvest conditions,” Miller said.

The High Plains weather conditions causing slow growth in cotton may be favorable to sorghum, which is about 45 days behind the Gulf Coast, he said. A good crop is expected on the High Plains.

Most of Texas’ corn crop is used for livestock feed or ethanol. About 1 percent is grown for food processors in the state. About half of the sorghum crop in grown on dryland acreage in West Texas, and about half is grown on the Gulf Coast.

About 40 percent of the corn crop is grown on the High Plains under irrigation, and about 60 percent is raised in central Texas or Gulf Coast under rain-fed conditions.

“Rain-fed conditions are almost as good as irrigated this year, and I expect to see a good crop,” Miller said.

Corn acreage is up about 15 percent over last year, and sorghum acreage is up about 23 percent. The wheat crop yielded about 144 million bushels; the average crop over the last five years is 100 million bushels, Miller said. However, last year’s 35 million-bushel harvest was the lowest crop Texas has had since 1971.

“Overall (2007) yields were very good,” Miller said. “We had plenty of moisture during grain-fill, and if you look at one variable that limits wheat yields in the state of Texas, that’s rainfall, and we had plenty of rainfall for wheat this year.”

Some areas had too much rain, he said. Damage to the wheat crop was reported in north central and northeastern Texas. Repeated rains and grain sprouting and lodging in the field kept part of the crop from being harvested at all.

Farmers have reported losing some acreage to flooding rivers, Jones said.

“Clearly the rivers have been up, and many of the rivers have been out of their banks in the last couple of months,” he said. “There has been a good bit of property damage, and concerns about erosion of bottomlands because of the high rivers.”

Still, the amount of land lost is down because reservoirs reduce the intensity of flooding, he said.

Concerns about water quality have been expressed, with all of the sediment that was delivered into streams and rivers.

Any time there’s a lot of runoff, there are many concerns about excessive bacteria and nutrients, Jones said.

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