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Native rangelands recovering, but drought remainsNative rangelands recovering, but drought remains

Despite rain, much of Texas remains in some level of drought. Learn more about the state of native rangelands, plus the latest crop and weather report in each region.

Adam Russell

July 20, 2023

13 Min Read
cattle native rangeland
Cattle on a tract of native rangeland hunker down under the shade of a tree. Sam Craft

Early summer and subsequent rains helped Texas’ native rangelands bounce back from drought.

However, Texas A&M AgriLife experts warn ranchers that the more than 100 million acres of statewide grazing land they rely on may still be recovering. 

Bill Fox, director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Center for Natural Resource Information Technology and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service range specialist, and Jeff Goodwin, research assistant professor and director of the Center for Grazinglands and Ranch Management, both in the Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Bryan-College Station, shared their assessment of Texas rangeland recovery for livestock producers.

Goodwin said many Texans may not realize how important native rangelands are ecologically and economically. Rangelands provide critical forages in the form of native grasses, seed grasses and forbs for livestock, including cattle, sheep and goats, as well as wildlife like white-tailed deer, turkey and quail.

Native rangelands make up more than 100 million acres of the state’s 117 million acres of grazing lands that include improved summer pastures like Coastal Bermuda and Sudan grasses and cool season grazing like wheat and ryegrass. 

Despite the widespread rains and overall improvement on the U.S. Drought Monitor, Fox and Goodwin emphasized that much of the state remained in some level of drought.

If producers are restocking, they should start slowly and with conservative numbers of livestock, Fox said.

“Even this week, there is 70% of the state in some level of drought,” he said. “So, we’re not out of this deal. Conditions are better, but droughts don’t typically break during the growing season. Droughts break with good moisture in the cool season.”

Native rangelands emerge from depths of drought

Goodwin said many ranchers west of Interstate 45 had been dealing with drought for almost two years before widespread rainfall began improving conditions in May. Rainfall deficits over that time took a toll on native forage and browse critical for livestock and wildlife.

The depth of the drought was July 12, 2022, when 99.24% of the state was experiencing abnormally dry to exceptional drought conditions. Almost 76% of the state was in severe to exceptional drought. Severe drought is indicative of poor pasture conditions, burn ban implementations and wildlife beginning to move into populated areas looking for food and water.

Supplemental feed for livestock and wildlife is necessary when an area enters the next level – extreme drought. Soil moisture is very low, and the ground shows large cracks and fire danger increases.

Exceptional drought results in widespread crop losses and heavy livestock culling or herd liquidations, degraded rangeland, major surface water shortages, poor water quality and algae blooms along with extreme fire dangers.

Statewide conditions did not reach levels experienced in 2011, the worst drought on record, though many individual ranchers and farmers in West Texas have endured worse localized conditions in 2022 and into 2023.

The one saving grace for ranchers during this period of drought compared to 2011 is that cattle prices have been historically high, Goodwin said. High prices made deeper culling easier for some producers, but many producers who had not experienced managing cattle and rangeland through droughts may have held onto cattle longer in the hopes rain would come.

“We had pretty terrible cattle prices in 2011, and this year we do not,” he said. “So, from a ranching perspective, we’re in pretty good shape because the market was up when we destocked.”

Balancing rangeland recovery, restocking

Goodwin said rangeland productivity takes time to recover following drought. Producers should consider foundational components like soil health and productivity as well as other localized factors before adding livestock.

“Restocking should be slow,” he said. “It must be at an appropriate level that gives the rangeland time to recover. It isn’t healed just because it grew a little grass.”

Goodwin said another positive from high cattle prices is that costs may deter producers who may be considering restocking earlier than their rangelands can support. 

Fox said having and following a grazing program that includes drought contingency plans can make a huge difference in an operation’s ability to conserve critical natural resources to sustain long-term profitability. Avoiding setbacks during suboptimal production conditions, such as overgrazing and the long-term impact of a delayed recovery, is critical to an operation’s ability to maintain production in optimal conditions.

The Center for Grazinglands and Ranch Management is a Texas A&M University system-wide effort dedicated to the ecologic and economic resiliency of grazing resources and ranching operations. The Center for Natural Resources Information Technology provides rangeland decision-support tools that can be utilized by producers in the decision-making process.

“Economics and ecology work in tandem, and so much of our industry is driven by the economic part,” Fox said. “But ecology and resource availability are foundational to the economics of any operation. Conserving and managing natural resources with the intention of resilience should be a foundational aspect of long-term financial sustainability.”

Native rangelands support more than livestock

Goodwin and Fox said ranchers will also have to weigh other factors that will impact their ability to restock native rangelands like wildlife and water.

Drought can cause significant wildlife losses. Young animals up and down the predator-prey chain born in the spring were especially vulnerable during the recent drought because of the lack of water, food and cover.

Fox said wildlife population recovery has to factor into a producer’s drought plan. The rule of thumb is “take half, leave half.” Of the half of rangeland production “taken” via grazing, producers should only count on 25% being available because the other 25% is subject to wildlife – from rabbits and deer to grasshoppers and birds – foraging.

Surface water, another critical necessity for livestock and wildlife that was in short supply in many areas before the May rains, has not been replenished. Many areas may have received multiple rains that will help forage recovery, but it takes heavy rainfall to create runoff water to fill stock tanks and watering holes.

Fox said some water tanks in north Central Texas filled to the brim from the late-spring rains, while others in South and West Texas were still mud puddles despite the increased forage productivity.

Goodwin and Fox said livestock producers should be more optimistic than this time last year, but they should also be cautious about restocking while rangelands recover.

“Hopefully, producers are maintaining their drought contingency plans,” Fox said. “And hopefully we get a full-fledged El Niño this fall and good winter moisture, which could set us up nicely. We just don’t want producers to rush into decisions based solely on the improvements they may see.”

For more information about resources from the Center for Natural Resources Information Technology go to https://cnritag.tamu.edu/.

AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:


The weather was hot and dry, and crop and pasture conditions declined. Soil moisture was very short to short. Light scattered showers were reported, but drought conditions increased and tanks that were beginning to fill up started to go dry again. Temperatures remained over 100 degrees with heat indexes up to 115 degrees. Lawn watering restrictions became more widespread. Rain will be needed to grow adequate grass for additional hay cuttings. First-crop corn was harvested for silage, and second-crop corn acreage was expected to be down drastically due to lack of moisture. All pastures and crops were suffering from drought and heat. Wheat harvest wrapped up, and sorghum was cut. Cattle were in fair condition with some hay being fed. Calves were being weaned. Pasture and rangeland conditions were poor to good.


Spotty rain showers delivered relief to a few areas in the district, but overall, the weather was extremely hot and dry. Conditions were starting to have a negative impact on quality and quantity of pastures and summer forages. Several counties were reporting large numbers of grasshoppers on the move.


Conditions were extremely hot and dry, and rain was badly needed. Drought conditions and extreme heat were devastating for cotton fields that needed to fill bolls. Fruit shedding continued and yield potential continued to suffer. Sorghum harvest should be completed soon, and some later-planted fields were likely to be reported as failed. Most corn harvesting wrapped up with yields at or above average. Rice was nearly all headed out. Pasture conditions were rapidly deteriorating and drying out. Hay fields needed rain as hay baling continued. Available forages were getting short in some pastures. Livestock were doing well. Cattle prices were at historic highs, and cattle were in good condition. 


Topsoil conditions were short, while subsoil conditions were adequate, and the soil was drying out very quickly. Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to good. Extreme heat and lack of rain slowed hay production to a crawl, but many producers continued to cut and bale between sporadic rainfall. Pastures were showing signs of drought stress. Livestock were doing fair to good. Cattle market prices still looked good. Grasshopper infestations were reported in Cherokee and Smith counties. Wild pigs remained an issue for producers and landowners.


Farmers continued to benefit from recent rainfall. Some producers started irrigating due to drying conditions. Rainfall amounts ranged from 0.7-1.5 inches in some areas. This moisture should allow many producers to keep their irrigation systems turned off for at least another week. Producers were scouting fields for pest, disease and weed issues. Cotton progress ranged from seven to 14 true leaves with 85% of fields at square set. Peanuts were blooming with pegging following strongly as well as pods were beginning to swell and form. Irrigation was critical at this point for peanuts. Cattle were in good condition with native grazing grasses in good condition.


The district experienced scattered rainfall that delivered 0.5-2 inches. Most counties reported adequate subsoil moisture, with some reporting adequate to surplus topsoil moisture. The 100-degree temperatures caused some crop stress. Corn was progressing well. Corn producers have not needed to irrigate yet. The corn crop was behind schedule with many fields not yet tasseling. Continuous rains halted the harvest of the little wheat that remained, and those fields were lodging and being taken over by weeds. Producers were finishing planting grain and silage sorghum and fast-maturing corn for silage. Dryland sorghum acres were down due to wet conditions during planting, but fields that were planted looked great. Cotton was limited due to early planting weather and loss of crops. Rangeland and pastures recovered much sooner than expected. Late-season stocking was expected; however, many producers do not have cattle, and rebuilding herds would be very costly. Hay crop prospects were excellent, and supplies were expected to be replenished by the end of the season. Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to excellent.


Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to good for most of the district. Subsoil and topsoil moisture were adequate to short. Temperatures remained in the triple digits with rain showers delivering up to 6 inches. Wheat, corn, grain sorghum, cotton and soybeans all looked excellent. Corn began to dry down, and soybeans had not bloomed. Grass growth was excellent, but the frequent rainfall made it difficult to cut and bale hay. Grasshopper populations were high and increasing. Livestock conditions were good and continuing to improve.


Continuous 100-plus degree days and wind have dried out the topsoil and were stressing crops, pastures and livestock more each week. The farthest western portion of the state reported trace amounts of rain up to 0.5 of an inch with some hail. Many cotton farmers were plowing under late-planted crops due to excessive heat, and older cotton was struggling. Dryland cotton was beginning to bloom with only 2-3 squares on the plant, and irrigated cotton was slowly blooming more each day. Stress was taking its toll as yield potential continued to decrease. Lygus bugs, spider mites and stink bugs were increasing in the area. Irrigation allotments in the El Paso area were up to normal. Cotton under irrigation in that area looked very good, especially Pima fields. Corn was drying down quickly, and sorghum was flowering. Melon harvest continued, and yields were starting to increase. Pecans looked very good with minimal pecan nut casebearer pressure reported. Most dryland pastures were completely brown with no green to be found. Very little grass remained in pastures except in bottomland. Brush was an ongoing battle, with ranchers struggling to keep up. Livestock were in fair condition, and producers started supplementing with hay. Alfalfa producers continued to cut and bale, and production was good. Rangelands were bare, but some small flood irrigated pastures looked very good.


Conditions were extremely hot with highs over 100 degrees daily. Soil moisture levels were extremely low, and all areas needed rain. Dry weather and heat slowed forage and crop growth and weed problems were increasing. Stock tank water levels were declining. Rangeland and pastures were showing signs of heat and moisture stress. Some hay cutting and baling occurred, and some producers were preparing for a second cutting, but pastures were starting to burn up. Good hay yields were reported this season. Sudan grass was cut and baled. Livestock looked good, and the cattle market remained high. Sheep and goat prices were a mixed bag. Cotton was planted and in fair to excellent condition. Some early planted cotton looked excellent while later-planted fields were struggling in the heat. Corn fields looked excellent though some fields were damaged by wind and replanted late. Pest pressure was high.


Conditions remained hot and dry. Soil moisture levels were very short to adequate. There were isolated pockets of rainfall with up to 2 inches reported. More rice began to head and fields were still two to four weeks out before farmers start harvesting. Heat was taking a toll on all crops. Rice quality was a concern. Corn harvest was expected to begin soon. Cotton was aborting bolls due to heat stress. Rangeland and pasture ratings were excellent to very poor. Pastures were burning up, and ponds were beginning to dry up quickly. Hay was being cut and baled, but some producers were grazing pastures due to poor hay production progress. First hay cuttings were excellent while second cuttings were fair to poor. Cattle prices continued to hold steady and even rise in some classes.


Hot and dry conditions persisted. Pastures began showing drought stress while hay baling ceased. Forage density on rangeland was low to very low with brush- and drought-tolerant forbs dominating rangelands. Pecan orchards began producing nuts in the dough stage, and thinning was expected to begin soon if not underway already. Corn and sorghum were nearing harvest, and some producers had already begun corn harvests. Cattle markets were steady while sheep and goats were low.     


Topsoil and subsoil conditions continued to deteriorate due to the wind, heat and no precipitation. Cotton was suffering from extreme heat and lack of moisture. Most cotton fields were about 70% open bolls, and some later planted fields were displaying 35% open bolls. Grain sorghum harvest was almost done, and corn harvest was about 60% done. Some late-planted grain sorghum fields were yet to be harvested, and some were expected to be plowed under because they did not make a crop. The sesame crop was starting to mature. Cotton was about two weeks away from the start of harvest, and some producers were still irrigating and hoping for higher yields. Citrus and sugarcane crops were being irrigated. Hay producers were baling and irrigating meadows for future cuttings. Cattle not feeding calves were in good condition, but the cows with calves looked thinner. Cattle prices remained high. Supplemental feeding of livestock continued. Pastures were rapidly deteriorating. Considering the circumstances, livestock and wildlife still looked good. Range cubes, protein/mineral/molasses and hay were being fed to livestock. One sale reported increased volumes of all classes of beef cattle and strong demand. Cattle prices were high at two local markets. Feed prices continued to be high at local feed stores. Wildlife were being provided supplemental feed and water.

Source: Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, AgriLife Today

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About the Author(s)

Adam Russell

AgriLife media, Texas AgriLife

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