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Row crop farmers need rain to start summer crop season

published: April 13th 2023
by: Adam Russell
source: Texas AgriLife Today

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows 81% of the state was still experiencing some level of drought compared to 95% this time last year. Drought conditions continue in the Plains, Panhandle, Central and Southwest Texas, with dozens of counties experiencing severe to exceptional drought that is putting the summer crop season in jeopardy after widespread failures in 2022.

AgriLife Extension agronomists Jourdan Bell, Ph.D., Amarillo; Calvin Trostle, Ph.D., Lubbock; and Reagan Noland, Ph.D., San Angelo, said the 2023 cropping season is off to a poor start due poor moisture and weather conditions, including high winds and above-average temperatures.

Conditions could change with rainfall, but the poor planting conditions have producers waiting for moisture and weighing their crop options.

In 2022, cotton in the central and southwestern parts of the state failed due to drought but wheat cover and grain crops that followed caught decent rains in October and November, Noland said. Wheat fields got off to a good start, but conditions since then have severely stressed many fields.

Noland said his region has been relatively dry but that he’s heard about much worse conditions further west and north into the Permian Basin and Plains. Trostle said normal rainfall amounts for the calendar year up to April 8 are 2.7 inches in his region, but that the Lubbock area has received only 0.75 of an inch so far this year.

“Lots of farmers would have planted sorghum by now or going to plant, but if it doesn’t rain soon, they may be on the fence about whether to plant cotton or something else,” Noland said. “The season is uncertain and they’re making last-minute planting decisions based on the forecast and local conditions.”

Row crop farmers hope for rain

Lack of topsoil moisture to germinate seeds and establish plants is holding up planting in drought-stricken areas. The window of time crops can be planted depends on the crop, plant variety and location’s average climate.

Noland said the window for planting grain sorghum is open now because waiting would put crops into the flowering stage in the heat of summer, which can compromise grain production. But without rain, farmers may wait until the late-season window, which opens in June or July.

Row crop farmers in the High Plains and Panhandle continue to wait for conditions to improve, Bell and Trostle said. Farmers in those areas have about one month for topsoil conditions to improve enough for planting corn or sorghum for grain or forage and cotton.

Bell said corn has been historically planted in April but is being planted from mid-April to mid-June because of declining groundwater and irrigation capacities. Producers are planting later as they monitor weather patterns and evaluate how to best allocate irrigation resources.

Cotton is planted in May with some fields going in as late as early June depending on the crop, but earlier planted fields routinely perform better in the Northern High Plains, she said. Sorghum is usually planted mid-May to mid-June.

Farmers continue to evaluate planting decisions and even cropping decisions – such as whether they might take crops like sorghum and corn to grain or harvest it for silage. The value of silage has increased due to the large forage demands coupled with drought that have caused regional forage deficits across the High Plains, which holds 80% of the state’s dairy production and heavy volumes of beef cattle in feed yards.

Farmers with irrigation have been pre-irrigating fields for more than a month in an attempt to maintain moisture, Bell said. But high winds and heat are reducing the impact pre-irrigation is having on topsoil moisture.

“The impact of the high winds and heat is that fields are rapidly drying out even where producers are pre-irrigating,” she said.

High winds blowing soil, sapping soil moisture

Timely rains have turned the tide in farmers’ favor following drought-ridden seasons in the past, Trostle said. But the lack of soil moisture is presenting other secondary problems including declining irrigation capacity and soil erosion.  

Soil erosion is an issue in fields where cover crops failed to establish or were blown out by high winds. Noland said local farmers were frustrated that fields tilled and bedded in December and January and ready to plant were losing a lot of soil to sustained winds of 40 mph. Bell said there have been several days of 60 mph winds with 70-plus mph gusts.

Declining irrigation capacity is another major concern for producers in drier parts of the state.

Irrigation supplements rainfall for crops. Applied water can help crops start or hang on and allow plants to progress between rains, but irrigation is not meant to bring a crop up and push it to harvest. For instance, many irrigated cotton acres in Noland’s area failed last year despite water applications.

Texas row crop farmers in large swaths of the state are facing a suite of problems related to Mother Nature, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.

While all problems relate to the lack of rainfall over the past two years, concerns are compounding as the summer season begins.

Water is pumped from the Edward Aquifer in his region while the Ogallala Aquifer provides water to fields in the High Plains. These groundwater sources provide water to homes and commercial properties as well as industry and agriculture in their respective regions. There is currently more water being pumped out than going back in via recharge zones – the areas of percolation of water through the water table to refill the aquifer.

Groundwater recharge occurs relatively quickly for the Edwards Aquifer, but heavy rains have been minimal over multiple years, Noland said. Trostle said the Ogallala recharges at a much slower pace and water levels will likely never exceed what is pumped each year.

“There have been many years like this where widespread rain can change the situation,” Trostle said. “Things will have to change to have a good start even with irrigation.”

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