COLLEGE STATION – Many agricultural producers in East Texas are feeling caught between a rock and a ‘hot’ place, according to Texas AgriLife Extension Service personnel.
The agricultural losses from the extended drought are extreme. But added to those costs now are frequent wildfires which have destroyed fencing, hay supplies and barns, and scorched what sparse grazing there was left, said Aaron Low, AgriLife Extension agent for Cherokee County.
“Talking with people who are more experienced with drought than I am, they’re anticipating that even it if starts raining right now, it’s going to be at least two years before our grasses are able to recover from this,” Low said.
Low noted that while much of the media coverage has focused later on the loss of private homes and whole neighborhoods, landowners have also suffered huge financial losses of fences and crops that often can’t be replaced by insurance.
Worse, while some fires have been started by truck blowouts and tree falls on power lines, other East Texas wildfires could have been avoided with a little common sense, he said.
“The big fire that started Sunday, west of Alto, was just from a truck parked in tall grass,” Low said. “The heat from the car’s catalytic converter started the fire. These guys came up from Houston and were filling up deer feeders, and the next thing, several thousand acres of timber and pasture burned.”
The Houston men lost their truck and trailer on land they only leased for hunting. The owner of the deer farm had more than a thousand acres burned.
Other loses from that fire included nearly two miles of fencing on White Oak Creek Ranch, Low noted.
“If you figure a post costs $5 each, and there’s a post every 10 feet, it starts to add up,” he said.
Statewide, about 5,500 miles of fence and 2.6 million acres of pasture had been lost to wildfire as of July 8, according to Dr. Andy Vestal, director of the Texas AgriLife homeland security and emergency management programs.
There’s also the cost of fuel, Bermuda grass sprigs, fertilizer and labor needed to restore pastures to consider if there is rain, Low said.
“We are talking losses of millions and millions of dollars in East Texas alone,” he said.
Meanwhile, regional livestock sale barns, such as Tri-County Livestock Market in New Summerfield, have reported about double the norm for cattle sales for an “extended period,” Low said.
“Our sale barn owners and managers are extremely worried that they’re going to have a rough time staying in business next year just for the simple fact there’s not going to be any cattle to sell,” he said.
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:
Central: With another week of severe drought, stock tanks were drying up, and producers had to haul water to livestock. Many producers were sending livestock to local sale barns. The cotton harvest was ongoing, with some fields being abandoned. Wildfire burned several thousand acres of land and destroyed homes.
Coastal Bend: With no rain forecast, the entire region continued to suffer from extreme drought and high temperatures. The number of cattle taken to sale barns rose as ranchers culled herds due to lack of water and the high cost of feed. Some areas reported smoke from the fires burning in the Austin area.
East: Tens of thousands of acres burned across the region. Although many fires were contained as of this report, large fires in Marion and Cherokee counties were still out of control. There was no substantial rain reported in most of the region. San Augustine County was the exception, receiving as much as 2 inches in some areas. Stock tanks and ponds that have not already dried up were soon expected to. Producers continued to purchase hay out of state. Others culled more deeply into herds or were sold out entirely.
Far West: Temperatures were cooler this past week, with highs in the 90s. However, without rain, crops and pastures were expected to further decline. The region remained under severe drought conditions with burn bans firmly in place. In Midland County, sprinkler-irrigated cotton was in very poor condition, but some of the drip-irrigated cotton was considered “marginal.” Ranchers continued to sell off livestock. Reports of cotton root rot and plant wilt were higher than usual. El Paso County cotton had a high incidence of boll rot, caused mostly by stress from high temperatures, low moisture and dry wind. Pecans were at nut gel stage and still growing. The fifth cutting of alfalfa was being baled. Due to water quality issues and heat stress, alfalfa had some grass contamination.
North: The region remained very dry. However, livestock got some relief from cooler temperatures. Wheat farmers were trying to prepare land for planting, but found it difficult with dry, hard soils. Most crops were harvested. The only exceptions are a few late-maturing soybeans and cotton. Many cattle producers were trying to buy hay from out of state and had to to pay extremely high prices to get the hay transported to Texas when they found it. Other producers culled herds and marketed calves early to relieve some of the grazing stress on their pastures. Some sold off entire herds. The emerging problem for livestock producers was water availability and water quality. Stock ponds were extremely low or dry at this time. There were reports of a few cattle dying of possible water toxicity. Wildfires destroyed thousands of acres of timber and pastures. The wildfire danger was extremely high.
Panhandle: The region remained dry but with some cooler temperatures. Soil-moisture levels were mostly very short. Cotton was in fair to very poor condition, with most counties reporting poor to very poor. Producers were still irrigating some cotton to add enough moisture to enable the crop to finish out. Some farmers were planting winter wheat. Rangeland and pastures were still rated very poor. Livestock producers continued to reduce herds, wean calves early, and supply supplemental feed to remaining cattle.
Rolling Plains: Cooler temperatures came to the region, giving residents a break from 100-plus degree weather. But conditions remained extremely dry. Wildfires were still burning in Palo Pinto County, but were mostly contained. Burn bans remained in place in all counties. Ranchers continued selling off cattle, but were being limited on the number they could take to sale barns due to the large amount of cattle being sold. Lack of grazing, hay and the high cost of supplements made it almost impossible to sustain cattle through the drought. Some producers were worried that if they sold off cattle, high cattle prices in the future will keep them from getting back into the cattle business. Some of the big ranches shipped cows out of state or to the feedlots to maintain their herds. Other counties reported that no dryland cotton will be harvested this year. Irrigated crops had a little help with the cooler temperatures, but only limited acres will be harvested, and quality is expected to be low. Stock tanks were low or completely dry. Producers who were able to drill wells were testing water quality for livestock. Homeowners were also testing water wells to ensure their drinking water was safe as water tables dropped. Producers were waiting on rain to plant wheat and winter pastures.
South: Extremely hot weather continued to take its toll on all rangeland, pastures, soil-moisture levels and livestock. All counties reported very poor soil-moisture conditions. Livestock producers were still searching for supplemental feed, and feed stores were having a difficult time meeting their needs. Some ranchers were resorting to prickly pear cactus. Very low stock-tank water levels were an ongoing concern for ranchers. Many Webb County ranchers completely liquidated herds, while others moved cattle to pastures with minimal forage but where there was access to water. More cattle were being sold at sale barns. Peanuts under irrigation were in fair to good condition. Cotton harvesting in Hidalgo County was finished, and cotton stalk destruction was nearly complete. Also in that area, growers were actively irrigating sugarcane, and producers were making preparations to begin harvesting the crop in a few weeks. In Starr County, fall-crop planting preparations continued.
South Plains: High temperatures were in the 80s to mid-90s, with lows in the 50s and 60s. The region had some very light, spotty showers, but not enough moisture was received to have an impact on the drought. Cotton maturity was estimated to be 30 days ahead of average, and the harvest is expected to be finished early. Producers were beginning to shut off irrigation wells, and some started to apply harvest aids. Some corn was being harvested in the northern counties. Burn bans remained in effect in most counties. Some winter wheat was being planted.
Southeast: Extreme drought conditions continued. There was increased demand for rice hay. The cost to irrigate rice more than doubled this year. Drought-management strategies for cattle herds included shipping and weaning calves early, culling cows 8 years and older, supplementing protein and hay, and herd liquidation.
Southwest: The region remains in fire-alert status with no rain predicted. Firemen were near to controlling field fires that destroyed more than 100,000 acres of rangeland and about 500 homes in Bastrop, Bexar, Travis, Williamson and other counties. But high, dry winds continued to aggravate the ongoing drought. Almost all forage had been used by either cattle or wildlife, and many stock tanks were dry. Ranchers liquidated their herds. The few livestock that remained required heavy supplemental feeding. Also, there was minimal forage for wildlife, an important agricultural issue as wildlife resource management is the main income producing activity for a large proportion of the area’s ranchers. The cotton harvest was completed, but about 40 percent of the harvest remained in field-stored modules. Cotton production will be down significantly this year as most dryland and partially irrigated cotton failed. The sweet-corn harvest was ongoing. Peanuts, pecans and landscape nursery crops continued to make good progress wherever irrigation water was available.
West Central: Temperatures cooled down some, but extremely dry conditions were ongoing. Increased wildfire danger was a big concern for all counties. Irrigated cotton was in fair condition. Small-grain planting was delayed as producers held off for rain. Rangeland and pasture conditions remained very poor. All water sources continued to drop. Hay was very hard to find and very expensive. Ranchers and producers continued to sell off livestock.