Weather continues to draw attention as farmers inspect wheat, fruit and nut crops to assess freeze damage while watching the skies for any signs of rainfall to provide planting moisture.
A few isolated reports of rainfall came from the Texas Panhandle over the Easter weekend but farmers say conditions remain grim across much of the region.
Those sentiments are supported by the latest Texas Drought Monitor report, issued by the Texas Water Development Board. That report indicates worsening drought conditions across the Texas Panhandle and down into the Rolling Plains over into the Wichita Falls area.
“Drought conditions intensified” over that area last week, the report said, with much of the Panhandle now under exceptional drought status, the worst level of drought. Areas in the Panhandle not considered in exceptional drought are in extreme drought status, the next worst category. Extreme status also extends southward into parts of Central Texas, while east, south and Far West Texas remain in mostly abnormally dry to moderate drought. A few areas remain drought free.
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The latest monitor shows 66 percent of the state in moderate to exceptional drought, up from 64 percent last week, 45 percent three months ago but considerably better than a year ago when 91 percent of the state was in moderate to exceptional drought.
A nationwide drought map shows drought from Central Texas to California and up into Washington State likely intensifying through July. That area includes much of 12 states with California, Nevada, Oregon, most of Arizona and about half of Texas in the zone where drought is likely to get worse over the next three months.
And drought is not the only concern for Southwest farmers. Specialists are still assessing damage from last week’s hard freeze, finding some wheat hard hit but fruits and nuts apparently suffering little damage, according to Extension Service reports.
In Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University Extension wheat specialist Jeff Edwards says injury symptoms are just beginning to show up. “Robert Calhoun and Matt Knori made a trip through north central Oklahoma recently, splitting stems. Their first stop was our wheat variety trials at Marshall, Oklahoma, where they found 20 percent injury in our grazed wheat plots and 51 percent injury in our non-grazed wheat plots. While planting date and management system clearly affected the level of injury, variety did not seem to have much effect.”
He said the two reported that a grazed field north of Hennessy showed little injury. “The same was true for a field in the Waukomis area and the Lahoma variety trial, where they found less than 5 percent injury. Not too far to the north, however, our Lamont variety trial sustained over 80 percent injury. I received similar reports of severe wheat freeze injury from Curtis Vap in the Blackwell area.”
He said on a trip to Apache to apply fungicides to the wheat variety trial, “we never unloaded the sprayer. Freeze injury was severe and clearly visible without splitting stems. Our wheat at the Chickasha research station had little to no damage, and most wheat in the area seemed to dodge the freeze bullet. I will make a bigger loop into southwest Oklahoma later this week and report findings.”
Edwards said injury symptoms should be easily identifiable and growers can assess damage to individual fields. “I recommend splitting 10 stems at four or five locations throughout the field and determine percent of injury from these numbers. If injury is extremely variable, increase the sample size. While it is fairly easy to determine the extent of injury on individual fields, the hit or miss nature of freeze injury this year makes it difficult to estimate the total impact on the Oklahoma wheat crop as a whole.”
He said drought had already taken a heavy toll and “severely limited resilience in our crop. We are entering late April, so I do not anticipate much of a recovery or rebound in fields that were severely damaged. It is important to note that 50 percent injury does not necessarily mean 50 percent yield loss. In most cases the actual yield loss will be less than the percent of injury. So, it is reasonable to expect that 50 percent injury might only result in a 35 percent or 40 percent yield loss. Of course, this depends on factors such as soil moisture and temperature.”
Late-season decisions may be affected by the freeze damage, Edwards added. “I would make decisions regarding fungicide application based on variety, current disease reports, and the yield potential of the crop as it stands right now,” he said. “Our long-term data show that fungicides protect yield potential to the tune of about 10 percent. Of course individual variety responses can deviate from this number, but 10 percent is a good rule of thumb.
“I do not, however, recommend applying a fungicide to ‘assist the crop in recovery from freeze.’ Again, make these decisions based on the remaining yield potential rather than an effort to attempt to nurse the crop back to health after freeze.”
Robert Burns, in his weekly Texas Crop and Weather Report, noted Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service personnel throughout the Central, Rolling Plains, South Plains and Panhandle regions indicate “varied reports of damage to wheat, forages and fruit and nut crops from the hard freeze on April 15. A statewide summary of damage to wheat in those areas is pending. However, Dr. Larry Stein, AgriLife Extension horticulturist for fruits, nuts and vegetable crops at Uvalde, was certain pecan and peach orchards were left mostly unscathed.”
A large part of the reason for the lack of damage was due to preventive measures taken by orchard owners and managers, Stein said. “After the late freezes last year, a lot of people were on guard this year and ready to do whatever they could,” he said. “The big thing was watering before the freeze.”
In 2013, the Texas peach crop was hammered by two exceptionally late freezes, one in late April, and for some areas, another in May. This year, an early March freeze caused some alarm, but most peach varieties had not yet bloomed and buds were tight enough to escape damage, Stein said. In 2013, the extreme drought meant many orchards were stressed before the freeze, making them more susceptible to damage.
Preventive measures can also include applying irrigation water to trees during a freeze, he said.
“You can run water during the time of the freeze,” Stein said. “When water goes from a liquid to a solid, it’s going to give off heat. And as long as that’s happening, it’s not going to get below 32 degrees (at the tree level.)”
Pecans were also mostly left unharmed, he said.
“There were actually a few trees that were nipped back in a few locations, in the lower spots,” Stein said. “The good news is only a few primary buds were forced, and there will be secondary buds that will come that will make pecans. But a lot of the primary buds hadn’t forced yet.”