Texas crop, weather for Sept. 20, 2011

Tractor pulling a disk

Ryegrass could be a less high-stakes gamble than other winter forages this year as it can be planted later and disked in. (Texas AgriLife Extension Service photo by Robert Burns)

COLLEGE STATION – Many parts of the state received from a trace to 4 inches of rain, but as welcome as the moisture was, people rushing to plant winter wheat or pasture may be setting themselves up for an expensive failure, according to a Texas AgriLife Extension Service agronomist.

From Sept. 13 through Sept. 20, much of the state east of Interstate 45 received from 1 to 2 inches of rain, according the National Weather Service. Parts of the Panhandle and North Texas received similar amounts, as did San Antonio and surrounding counties. The Coastal Bend and South Texas areas had large pockets of 3 to 4 inches of rain.

But even where 4 inches was received, the deep soil moisture profile is so poor that, without regular rains, early planting of winter wheat could result in “catastrophic” failures, said Dr. Larry Redmon, AgriLife Extension state forage specialist, College Station.

Two-minute MP3 Audio version of Texas crop, weather for Sept. 20, 2011

“The soil is so devoid of moisture right now that even where there was 4 inches, we’ve only wetted up the top part of that profile,” Redmon said. “If people plant now, they’re likely to get that seed to germinate, but there’s not going to be any moisture down below for that plant.”

Redmon’s warning applies not just to winter wheat but to winter pastures as well.

“We see this a lot with winter annuals,” Redmon said. “We’ll get just enough rain to germinate, get the plant up, but then we don’t get enough rain for the plant to survive.”

When there are moisture reserves deep in the soil profile, plants will survive dry spells because they can tap down into it. But with no deep moisture, it’s going to take regular rains to keep the top layer of soil wet and maintain new plantings, he said.

A lot of people may know these basic facts and still plant, Redmon noted. Hay supplies are nearly non-existent because of the extended drought, and so many producers are in dire need of forages to maintain their cattle through fall and winter, and there is going to be the tendency to optimistically gamble on more rain coming.

“And certainly that’s their call, but they’re gambling they’re going to not only get more rain this week, but the next, and the week thereafter,” he said. “With the forecast that La Nina is supposed to strengthen, which bodes for a dry winter and spring, I’m thinking that’s not a good gamble.”

Redmon recommended producers wait a bit to see what the weather brings. The planting window for winter wheat extends to late-October and early November in the Lubbock or Amarillo area. Farther south, into Central Texas, producers can plant as late as Christmas or New Year’s Day and still have a chance to make a crop, he said. After that, there are other choices besides wheat and the usual winter annuals.

“If we get much later than that, then wheat may not be the best choice (for grazing),” he said. “Maybe ryegrass becomes a better player than wheat or oats or rye. ”

This is because ryegrass is going to make most of its growth in the late winter, early spring anyway, he said. Also while the cost of establishing wheat or oats or rye is relatively high, the gamble with ryegrass is not going to be so high-stakes.

“The seeding rate for wheat and other winter annuals is typically about 90 pounds per acre, and the seed is not cheap,” he said. “So if we miss that fall window of opportunity, then ryegrass becomes an option that is a lot less expensive to plant. You only have to plant 30 pounds per acre. You don’t have to drill it; you can broadcast it, and drag or lightly harrow it.”

More information on the current Texas drought and wildfire alerts can be found on the AgriLife Extension Agricultural Drought Task Force website at http://agrilife.tamu.edu/drought/.

AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

Map of the 12 Texas AgriLife Extension Service Districts

The 12 Texas AgriLife Extension Service Districts

Central: Livestock operators continued culling herds. Surface water sources remained at critical levels. Wheat and oat planting began, but producers were waiting for rain to apply fertilizer. Hay was unavailable.

Coastal Bend: Rain showers over the weekend were welcomed, but not enough moisture was received to significantly affect conditions. The region continued to suffer from drought and higher-than-normal temperatures. Sale barns reported record numbers of cattle being sold, while ranchers reported that hay for sale was becoming harder and harder to find.

East: Most of the region received from 1 inch to 1.5 inches, which aided firefighters. The Texas Forest Service expected the respite to be temporary as the “long-term outlook indicated the drought will persist or worsen through the end of the year.” Thousands of acres, including large blocks of timberland, had already burned in September. Water sources for livestock further dried up. Some farmers took this opportunity to clean out ponds and lakes. Producers were trucking in hay from other states. They were also hauling water in some cases.

Far West: Another front brought cooler temperatures and scattered showers, with accumulations from 0.2 inch to 2 inches. Most the moisture was received in Brewster, Ector, El Paso and Pecos counties. In Howard County, farmers were preparing to defoliate irrigated cotton. This year’s cotton matured very early. Midland County cotton was in poor condition. In Upton County, cotton was opening bolls, and winter wheat was planted. In El Paso County, pecans already passed the jelly stage, and growers finished taking their fifth cutting of alfalfa. El Paso County also reported that cotton diseases — verticillium wilt, fusarium mold and root rot — damaged about 15 percent of the crop. Rangeland and pastures remained in very poor condition throughout the region.

North: The region had cooler weather with spotty showers, but soil moisture continued to be very short. Wildfires remained a big concern. Rangeland and pastures were in poor to very poor condition. Most corn, grain sorghum and soybeans were harvested. Only a few acres of cotton remained to be harvested. Many livestock producers were still culling herds and trying to find enough hay to carry their remaining cattle through the fall, winter and next spring. Fly populations were high. Planting winter pastures remained an option — if there was more rain.

Panhandle: The region received from a trace to 2 inches of rain and cooler temperatures. However, more rain was needed to have a substantial effect on soil-moisture levels. Along with the rain, Deaf Smith County had a 1.5-mile-wide band of hail that traveled 4 to 5 miles, destroying crops in its wake. Some cotton producers were still irrigating. Winter wheat was being planted. Rangeland and pasture continued to be rated very poor. Livestock producers further reduced herds and were weaning calves early.

Rolling Plains: Parts of the region received rain, from a few tenths of an inch to as much as 4 inches. In Clay County, there was heavy run-off and many stock tanks caught water. Some even filled up. Temperatures dropped from highs of 106 to 108 degrees to the upper 70s and low 80s. In those counties that received moisture, producers were already preparing to plant wheat. Growers who had gambled and planted wheat in dry ground now expected it to quickly emerge, but the crop will need much more moisture to sustain it. Rangeland was still in poor condition, but it was hoped the wet weather would turn it around before winter sets in. Livestock were in poor condition as producers continued to cull herds. Some irrigated cotton had been defoliated, but some wells were shut off due to not having enough water to do the crop any good.

South: Soil-moisture levels continued to be very poor throughout the region. A few counties received from a half inchto as much as 4 inches of rain. The rain improved topsoil moisture, but it generally was not enough to help warm-season grasses this late in the growing season. Hay was becoming scarcer, and stock-tank water levels continued to decline. There were reports of cattle becoming stuck in the mud and dying while trying to reach small puddles of water. Many Webb County livestock producers totally liquidated their herds. Peanut irrigation was ongoing in Frio County. In Zavala County, pecan producers were actively irrigating all orchards and planned to start harvesting nuts sometime in mid-October. Also in that area, producers were very busy preparing land for planting cabbage, onion and spinach. In Hidalgo County, growers were actively irrigating sugarcane and citrus. In Starr County, sorghum progressed well. In Willacy County, all sorghum and cotton was harvested.

South Plains: Most of the region received some rain, with scattered showers delivering from a trace to 1.5 inches. Cooler temperatures accompanied the rain, with highs ranging from the upper 60s to the 80s. The moisture was welcome, but came too late to impact cotton, most of which was already in cutout. The rain will encourage some to plant winter wheat. Most cotton producers were preparing for harvest. Rangeland and pastures still needed a significant rain, and cattle were being sold off due to lack of available forage. More rain was forecast, but the region will need a lot more to catch up.

Southeast: Light showers came to the region, with some heavier rain on Sept. 19. But producers worried that even where they received substantial moisture, they won’t have enough warm days for grasses to respond before the first frost, which is usually mid-November. However, the rain may help with the establishment of winter pastures. Meanwhile, pastures and ponds remained in bad shape. Soybeans were in poor condition as well. Producers continued to sell cows and calves.

Southwest: Wildfires continued to burn in Bastrop County. A livestock supply point opened Sept. 5 to distribute donated feed and hay for cattle. Hill Country counties reported scattered showers brought from a trace to 1.5 inches of rain, which somewhat improved the agricultural situation but did not dispel the drought. Producers continue to cull cattle.

West Central: The region remained hot and dry, with the wildfire danger extremely high. A few areas reported light showers, but not enough to improve soil-moisture levels. All dryland crops were reported to have failed. There was no field activity due to the dry conditions. All sources of water continued to decrease or were already dry. There was no grazing available for livestock, and trees were dying in rangeland and pastures. All remaining livestock were surviving on supplemental feed. Ranchers continue to sell out herds. Irrigated pecans were expected to produce moderate yields.
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