When it comes to spring rains in Texas, more times than not, it can be too much too fast or too little, too late.
Then there are spring seasons like this one, when a lingering El Niño weather system in the Pacific can easily throw farmers a curve from one day or one week to the next.
After the excessive rains of recent weeks -- nearly 22-inches in the heaviest hit areas -- crop specialists in Texas and neighboring Louisiana say, overall, farmers have fared well as a result. Rainfall totals in March and more recently in late April, however, have varied greatly.
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Heavy rains caused flooding in some areas of both states that seriously damaged corn and other row crop fields and pastures. Around 1,500 of 10,000 acres of corn in Fayette County, Texas, for example, were drowned out or completely swept away. Notable amounts of rain fell, as much as an estimated 12 to 20 inches in southeast Texas between Fayette and San Jacinto counties and more than 9 inches near Wichita Falls and Stephenville on the opposite side of the state.
Areas south of Abilene also experienced widespread flooding when more than 5 inches fell from the late April storm system. Fayette County, Texas, farmer Gerard Hajovsky recorded more than a foot of rain on April 18 alone. He lives on the Colorado River south of La Grange, and said he had to launch his boat in order to check on his pecan orchard and field crops.
“We had a lot of corn underwater last week. It goes anywhere from a couple of inches to several feet deep, but it’s slowly draining off," he said.
Across the Texas/Louisiana state line torrential downpours seemed to cause the most damage. Those rains are expected to cost farmers at least $10 million in lost revenues from damage to crops and loss of livestock.
The impact includes the costs of replanting flooded fields, potential crop yield losses and having to relocate livestock herds, according to LSU AgCenter economist Kurt Guidry, who has been collecting damage data since the spring storms began in March.
Guidry reports cornfields in north Louisiana saw some of the greatest damage with as many as 55,000 acres of corn flooded that will need to be replanted.
“Fortunately for most of the major row crops in Louisiana, planting hadn’t begun to any significant measure [by that time],” Guidry said. “The impact for these crops to this point has been disruption of field preparations, which could result in planting delays that could ultimately affect yields.”
But as a result of the wet spring, he warns that rice and grain sorghum planting, as well as wheat harvest, are all behind the five-year average. Planting delays may force some farmers to switch acreage to other commodities as well.
When the late April rains arrived, USDA had already reported several Louisiana commodities were behind the five-year average pace. Only about half of Louisiana’s corn acres were planted as of April 3, while 82 percent of acres had been planted by that time on average over the past five years – a slow start to the year.
In addition, more than 400 head of beef cattle were missing or dead in the Louisiana floods, and livestock operations are facing increased costs associated with relocating herds and losing available land for grazing.
TEXAS RICE BELT WELCOMES WET SPRING
Texas rice farmers along the lower Colorado River are mostly pleased to be getting substantial rains this spring. The Rice Belt, located within three counties near the Gulf Coast in Southeast Texas, have been assailed by water problems in recent years as industry and urbanization has spread upriver, especially in Central Texas near Austin, an area known for a series of manmade reservoirs known as the Highland Lakes.
Rice growers, many of them senior water rights holders on the Colorado River, were instrumental in helping to establish this series of six lakes in the 1930s and 1940s. The multipurpose lakes were designed to ensure an adequate flow of river water to support agriculture, to support the establishment of hydro-electric production, and to provide a water supply source for growing cities and communities located along the river.
In more recent times the lakes have served as a magnet to attract real estate development, golf courses and shopping centers and to provide boating, fishing and other recreational opportunities to a fast-growing region.
As a result, for the past several years, rice farmers have suffered from disruption of flow from the river, largely because of a multi-year, historic drought that increased the demand for water from the lakes and rivers of Central Texas. A number of emergency requests to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) in recent and successive years cut off irrigation allotments to most rice growers, forcing most to curtail rice acres and even switch to alternative crops to survive.
RICE IS BEST OPTION
But in this humid sub-tropical region that stretches south to the Gulf Coast, some rice farmers say that growing crops other than rice simply is not a viable option because of the heavy clay layer at the sub-soil level.
With the absence of rice farming in the region, farmers, communities and the local economy have suffered greatly, creating a threat to an industry that has survived across the region since the 1880s.
Ron Gertson, an area rice farmer who chairs the Colorado Water Issues Committee, says a thick layer of clay beneath the top soil traps irrigation water, providing a saturated environment where shallow-rooted rice plants thrive. But plants with deeper roots are stunted because their roots cannot grow beyond the clay layer.
“Take corn, for example,” Gertson said following a meeting of the group last year. “If a corn plant is seven feet tall, its roots grow seven feet deep, typically. If you plant corn in our soil, those roots will go down to that hard clay and stop. It can’t go any further. As a result, the corn plant can’t get the nutrients and moisture that it needs from our shallow topsoil. You will not see corn grown, even experimentally, in our soil type.”
A few farmers in the rice belt have been trying alternative crops just the same, but with mixed results. Those include corn, grain sorghum and soybeans.
Gertson says spring rains this year provide a ray of hope that better days are ahead for Texas rice growers, although he stops short of saying there will be adequate moisture this year for a good rice crop, even if farmers are bold enough to plant much rice.
He points to new technology, like water-efficient rice varieties, as a possible solution to what appears to be a problem that won't go away anytime soon, namely, more development upriver, which means more water demand—and less water to grow rice.