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Soil moisture conditions improve as drought weakens

published: May 10th 2023
by: Adam Russell
source: Texas AgriLife Today

Soil moisture conditions around much of the state improved slightly over recent weeks, and there is hope that drought conditions might break in time to plant row crops and enough to sustain them to harvest, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.

Emi Kimura, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agronomist and state peanut specialist in the Texas A&M Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Vernon, said farmers who caught rain are thankful for the moisture. Some surviving wheat fields looked better over recent weeks and may benefit from the timely rainfall during grain fill and see improved yields. The fresh topsoil moisture may also spur crop plantings that have been at a standstill due to drought. But conditions are still far from ideal.

“Last year, we didn’t have any wheat to harvest, and this year is not good, but at least there will be a harvest,” she said. “It’s bad, but it’s not as bad. Now we just need more rain to have a decent peanut and cotton season.”

Rains improve soil moisture levels

Areas east of Interstate 35 are mostly free of drought and completely emerged from severe drought conditions. Drought levels in Travis and Guadalupe counties are a good indicator of the dividing line with the eastern edges of the counties showing no drought while their western edges continue to show extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor map.

John Nielsen-Gammon, Ph.D., Texas state climatologist and Regents Professor in the Texas A&M Department of Atmospheric Sciences, Bryan-College Station, said so far spring storm systems have been more consistent in East Texas and also in high elevations of West Texas and along the Gulf Coast. Rain in other parts of the state has been more sporadic.

Weather has shifted toward an El Niño pattern that will likely strengthen as the year progresses into fall, he said. El Niño weather patterns tend to deliver above-average precipitation to Texas during the cooler parts of the year.

Fifty weather stations across Texas reported more than 10 inches of rainfall during April, while other parts of the state did not receive measurable precipitation, he said.

Recent rains have reduced the amount of the state dealing with drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report for Texas. But improvement in some locations mirror worsening drought levels in other locations.

A year ago, less than 9% of the state was free from drought, according to the drought monitor. The latest report shows almost 32% of the state completely emerged from drought. The percentage of the state experiencing exceptional drought has also decreased from 23% this time last year to just over 3%. Exceptional drought is indicative of exceptional and widespread crop and pasture losses and emergency-level water shortages in reservoirs, streams and wells.

AgriLife Extension regional agronomists in drought-stricken areas between the Panhandle and Rio Grande River had commented in a recent Texas Crop and Weather Report about the distinct locality of some rainfall over recent months. The spotty rains have put some fields in better shape than others nearby.

For example, Oldham County, which lies west of Amarillo, experienced a wide range of rainfall over the past three weeks. Parts of the county received less than a quarter inch of rainfall while other areas received more than 3 inches.

“What goes up must come down,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “If you have thunderstorm cells that have a lot of ascent in them, producing a lot of rain, there has to be a descent going on somewhere else nearby. That’s also true for larger scale storm systems, but then you have broader patterns. As we get to the summer convective season, the rainfall tends to be more spotty.”

Sporadic rains spread drought relief

Over the three weeks ending May 5, San Angelo had received less than 0.02 of an inch of rainfall, he said. Lubbock and Amarillo received a little over half an inch, and the Abilene area received 1.37 inches over the same period. Wichita Falls fared slightly better at almost 2 inches.

On the other hand, Nielsen-Gammon said, April rain totals for much of East Texas were impressive. Most areas received multiple inches of rainfall, with up to 13 inches or more recorded in Hallettsville, between San Antonio and Houston.

Calvin Trostle, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agronomist also in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Lubbock, said the heavier rainfall totals in Oldham County fell mostly in rangeland, which is good for ranchers but improved growing conditions only slightly for farmers.

Half an inch of rainfall or better in some areas could improve surviving wheat yields by a few bushels per acre, Trostle said. Cotton planting was expected to ramp up as farmers take advantage of the topsoil moisture, but daytime temperatures in the 90s and wind are sapping moisture rapidly.

“This rain probably did more good for rangeland recovery, and there may be enough moisture to germinate cotton seeds,” he said. “But we’ll need more rain to establish moisture below that top 3-4 inches. Roots grow sideways when they hit dry dirt. It’s not all gloom and doom. We’ve gotten a little moisture, and that is a good thing; it’s just not enough.”

Nielsen-Gammon said there are rain chances for western parts of the state over the next two weeks. There is also a potential for Pacific and Atlantic storm systems moving across the Baja Peninsula in Mexico and through the Gulf of Mexico, respectively, to collide over the western half of the state and result in heavy rainfall.

“This coming weekend looks wet for the droughty areas of the state,” Nielsen-Gammon said.  “A single storm is not a drought-buster, but this could be a very good start.”

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