By: Adam Russel
Drought conditions affecting herd stocking rates in West Texas, Panhandle
FORT STOCKTON – Drought conditions grip much of West Texas and the Panhandle, driving many producers to reconsider herd stocking rates, while water and cool- and warm-season grasses are plentiful in eastern areas of the state, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialists.
Dr. Bruce Carpenter, AgriLife Extension livestock specialist, Fort Stockton, said most rangeland and pastures west of the Pecos River haven’t received a meaningful rain since October. Most producers provide water for cattle via wells, but available forage is becoming scarce.
Carpenter said drought conditions are forcing, or could soon force, producers to make decisions regarding their herds if a significant rain does not arrive soon. Some producers with reasonable standing forage may be able to wait for rain or cull lesser cows to make pastures last longer, but the weather will determine how long.
“Wheat hasn’t had the moisture to get the growth producers need for normal stocking rates,” he said. “They’re having to rethink their plan. Some producers are culling. Those who aren’t probably need to be looking at their pastures and deciding when and what cattle to cull or whether they might be able to make the next rain.”
Dr. Ted McCollum, AgriLife Extension beef cattle specialist, Amarillo, said the cow/calf outlook was normal for the Panhandle aside from drier-than-normal conditions.
“There may be some instances where producers have had to adjust their stocking rates due to drier conditions, but I’ve not heard anything out of the ordinary for this time of year,” he said.
McCollum said most producers appear to be faring well despite the lack of precipitation since October. Good conditions through late fall provided adequate stockpiles of forage on rangelands for winter grazing.
But the lack of rain could mean a slow start for warm-season grasses, he said. That may extend the time producers provide supplemental feed.
Stocker cattle on wheat began coming off pasture earlier than normal because of forage conditions, he said. Many calves never went out to graze, while others have been shipped earlier than normal.
There are still cattle grazing out small-grain fields in the region, McCollum said.
“The flow of stockers on and off small grains this year is different than normal and may influence
some markets by the different distributions and movement over the winter and spring,” he said.
The feeder cattle market has deflated recently as the number of fed cattle marketed has drifted lower, he said. The light calf market has held better than that for heavier feeder calves.
“It will be hard to kick spring off well if we don’t get some rain soon,” McCollum said. “We have good deep moisture in pastures and rangelands, but the topsoil profile needs some help. If the dry spell continues, it will mean a slow start to spring, and that could mean some further adjustments to producers’ stocking rates.”
Dr. Jason Cleere, AgriLife Extension, beef cattle specialist, College Station, said ample rains and relatively normal springtime temperatures created good conditions for cow/calf operations in East and Southeast Texas.
“Some producers may still be calving, but most have calved out and are beginning to work them,” he said. “If it continues to rain, we should be in good shape.”
Cold fronts have slowed growth in warm-season grasses like Bermuda and Bahia, Cleere said, but that cool-season forages like ryegrass and clover remain prevalent in pastures.
He said producers have begun to fertilize some warm-season pastures in the hopes of timing applications with rains, but that the timing could be too early and benefit cool-season grasses instead.
“Producers want to take advantage of spring rains, but if it’s applied too early, remaining winter/spring weeds, ryegrass and clover will steal nutrients that were intended for Bermuda grass,” he said.
AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:
CENTRAL: Despite rainfall at the end of March, constant winds greatly reduced topsoil moisture. Heavy rains, hail and high winds damaged wheat crops and some oats. Producers in some counties that received severe storms may have to replant corn and sorghum, otherwise, corn and grain fields looked good. Wheat continued to look good with limited disease pressure. Fields were too wet to plant cotton. Cool temperatures slowed Bermuda grass emergence and seasonal crop growth. Threat of a late frost had many producers concerned. Producers were spraying weeds and fertilizing hayfields. Spring plowing was ongoing. Livestock were in fair condition. Many producers stopped supplemental feeding. Tanks were full. Cattle fly numbers were increasing. Recent tariff discussions were concerning producers in agriculture, especially cotton, corn and beef producers. Nearly all counties reported good soil moisture and good overall livestock, crop, and rangeland and pasture conditions.
ROLLING PLAINS: Recent rainfall helped, but western counties could use some more. The ground was still extremely dry. Rangeland and pastures greened up a little but not enough for long-term improvement. Wheat looked better than previous reporting periods. Early maturing wheat varieties were heading. A lot of the wheat acreage was being grazed out or will be terminated to plant cotton. Livestock were in good condition with supplemental feeding continuing on a daily basis. Farmers were preparing fields for cotton by putting out pre-emergence herbicides and bedding up fields. Temperatures reached close to 80 degrees, which put some residents in garden-planting mode. However, a freeze in the forecast had local gardeners in panic mode trying to prevent freeze damage to crops. Vineyard owners were in the same shape as they tried to prepare fields for the possible freeze.
COASTAL BEND: Recent rains improved overall conditions, although soil conditions were a little wet at the start of the reporting period. Corn and sorghum were growing fast and doing well. Cotton planting was nearly complete and rice planting continued. Most pecans were breaking bud and leafing out. Weed control and fertilizer applications continued in pastures and hay fields. Livestock were doing well.
EAST: Fair daytime temperatures across the district continued the growth of winter and warm-season forages. Anderson County reported all corn was planted and emerged. Winter wheat was in good to excellent condition. Jasper County reported corn as 75 percent planted with none emerged. Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to good apart from Anderson County, which reported poor conditions. Producers continued to plant vegetables throughout the district. Jasper County producers replanted vegetables due to too much rain, and some Marion County producers replanted due to cold overnight temperatures. Topsoil conditions were adequate apart from Marion County,which reported a surplus. Subsoil conditions were adequate. Timber acres in Anderson County were too wet to harvest. Livestock were in fair to good condition with some supplementation taking place. Cattle continued to gain weight, and most herds completed spring calving. Houston County reported stronger cattle markets. Wild pigs continued to plague Anderson, Cherokee, Henderson, Smith and Upshur counties. Houston County reported horn flies had become a nuisance, and Upshur County reported gopher and mole control activity.
SOUTH PLAINS: Subsoil and topsoil moisture levels remained very dry with high winds and no moisture. Producers were beginning to irrigate and prepare for planting season. A hard freeze affected area vineyards. The extreme drought has drastically affected winter wheat conditions. Farmers were trying to decide if wheat field quality was good enough to make hay or prepare for early termination to make way for cotton. Any grain crop at this point would be very minimal. Corn planting began. Cows were being supplemented twice a week.
PANHANDLE: Conditions were dry with high winds. Moisture was needed throughout the district. Soil moisture was very short. Fire danger was still very high. Armstrong County battled a large fire with a total of 14,826 burned acres. Some horses sustained burns, but there were no reports of any livestock lost. Pasture conditions were very dry. Lack of moisture and high winds continued to hurt crops in Hall County. Wheat, rye and pasture needed rain to support summer growth. Wheat continued to decline. Irrigated wheat was being watered. Spring preplant activities continued at a slow pace. Rangelands were dormant due to dry conditions. Most producers were forced to put any type of planting on hold until some type of moisture arrives.
NORTH: Topsoil and subsoil moisture levels were mostly adequate across the district. Temperatures were cooler than normal with up to 0.5 an inch of rain reported. Thunderstorms late in the reporting period brought high winds and hail. Producers were assessing possible damage to wheat, but there was no noticeable damage to sorghum or corn. Reports of temperatures from 28-32 degrees had farmers nervous about soybeans, corn and some early sorghum. Soil temperatures were around 64 degrees before the freeze, but testing revealed a 10 degree drop afterward. The rain and cooler temperatures slowed down corn planting. About 75 percent of corn was planted and about 25 percent had emerged. Wheat looked much better after rains and fertilization. Winter pastures were doing better following warmer weather and soil moisture to help with growth. Cattle slowed consumption of hay and feed. Other spring crops, cotton, grain sorghum and soybeans were expected to be planted later this month, weather permitting. Cattle looked good. Horn flies were expected to be a big problem this year, and wild pigs were a problem.
FAR WEST: Temperatures ranged from highs in the mid-90s to lows in the 40s. No rainfall was reported. High winds with gusts up to 20-25 miles per hour created a massive dust storm. A lot of prewatering was ongoing. Conditions did not allow much field activity. Most, if not all, cotton acres were already preirrigated.Some farmers planted Pima cotton. Most will start planting in the next couple of weeks with upland cotton to follow. Corn planting was almost complete, and watermelons should start soon. Most pecan orchards were irrigated as well. Fire danger remained a concern for those with winter grass. Marking of sheep and cattle began.
WEST CENTRAL: Stock tanks levels were dropping. Recent rains received improved wheat, pastures and rangelands throughout the district. Corn was planted and emerged. Most sorghum was planted following the rain. Cotton ground was prepared for planting. Mesquite and oak trees were in full bloom, and pecans began budding out. Weather was warm and windy with a cold front at the end of the reporting period dropping temperatures in the 40s. Livestock continued to improve. Lambing and kidding season began for sheep and goat producers. Cattle markets were up on all classes at area sale barns.
SOUTHEAST: Daytime growing conditions were good, but it was slightly cool at night. Rains throughout the week kept some areas saturated. Livestock were in good condition. Corn and sorghum were up and doing well. Early planted cotton was up, but slowed by recent cool weather. Recent rains should help dryland cotton emerge soon. Rangeland and pasture ratings varied from excellent to poor with good ratings being most common. Soil moisture levels ranged from adequate to surplus with adequate being most common.
SOUTHWEST: Temperatures varied day to day from the 60s into the high 80s, however, a cold front brought 40-degree highs late in the reporting period. Moisture conditions continued to be dry. Pecan trees were beginning to break buds. Spring green up and bluebonnets were in full bloom. Peaches bloomed. Cotton planting should be completed soon. Weed control and fertilization increased on improved pastures. Bermuda grass growth was slow. Spring shearing of sheep and Angora goats was underway. Livestock were in fair condition, but supplemental feeding and monitoring of water was necessary for livestock and wildlife.
SOUTH: Northern areas of the district reported mild weather with adequate moisture levels. Western parts of the district reported dry conditions and no rainfall with short to very short soil moisture levels. Eastern parts of the district reported up to 1 inch of rainfall with adequate soil moisture levels, but warm, windy conditions were affecting topsoil moisture. Hot and dry weather conditions continued in the southernmost parts of the district with short to very short soil moisture levels despite spotty showers. Cotton planting continued. Jim Wells County reported some cotton was being replanted due to wind shear on seedlings, but most fields were established and faring well. Sorghum planting was in full swing. Wheat fields were maturing and started to turn color. Potato fields were flowering. Bermuda grass was being cut and baled. Corn fields continued to develop and were in good condition. Irrigated corn was being watered. Pasture and rangeland conditions continued to improve following rainfall, but the response from some forages was minimal. Body condition scores on cattle remained fair. Vegetables were planted and emerging. Irrigated Coastal Bermuda grass was in good condition. No supplemental feeding was reported in Zavala County, but feed supplements and water transportation was reported in some areas. Light cabbage and spinach harvest activity was reported. Local beef cattle markets continued to offer above normal volumes while prices on feeder cattle declined. Wheat and oats were peaking in Duval County. In Hidalgo County, harvest of sugarcane, citrus and vegetables continued. Much of the citrus harvest was complete.