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Ongoing drought taking a toll on local agriculture

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Posted: Friday, August 19, 2011 8:45 am

The drought the ongoing might not be unprecedented, but it's the worst Texas has seen in many, many years. And things might get a lot worse before they get better.

Don’t let last week’s thunderstorm fool you. The soil is very dry, making crops of all kinds sparse. Because of the drought, grass has been grazed down to the ground and hay supplies are low. Cattleraisers face the prospect of buying hay from other states, which can get expensive. Stock tanks are dry, meaning water must either come from wells or be purchased from a supplier like Aqua Water.

“Our producers never really recovered from 2008-09,” said Bastrop County Ag Extension Agent Rachel Bauer. “Cattle numbers never rebounded from before the sell-off. If they bought any cows, they are probably going to sell them again.”

There is a risk that locally produced hay, as well as hay purchased from other states, might be too low in nutrients to adequately feed cattle over the winter, said Bauer. “We're trying to get people who still have cattle to get their hay tested. If they bring it in from out of state they need to know the protein and energy content. If not, cattle could eat and still lose weight.”

According to Texas A&M Professor and Texas State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, the current drought is very close to surpassing the previous “drought of record” of the 1950s. 

"Since October 1 (2010), we've had a little more than 9 inches of rain on average for the state; normal would be about 23 inches, so we're well below 50 percent," he said in a recent interview with the Texas Water Resources Institute (TWRI). "If we don't get 4.5 inches of rain between now and the end of September, we will have the driest one-year period ever, surpassing 1956, which is the drought of record for most places."

Whether the drought will continue through the winter depends in part on whether the cold water phenomenon known as La Niña returns to the Pacific coast of Mexico. "Up until the last month or so, the outlook for this winter looked really promising,” he said. “Some of the indications now say that we might see another La Niña developing, which will tilt the odds toward another dry winter. The thing to worry about is the 50 percent chance of a La Niña this winter and the possibility that the drought will continue and water supplies will continue to get worse."

Nielsen-Gammon believes planners should take this opportunity to plan for another year of drought. 

"I suspect that if the drought continues like it has, sometime next year some places in the state will exceed their drought of record and with the increase of population and the increase of water use we'll start seeing some serious problems,” he said. “Hopefully during the next few months places will work out and try to figure out, 'Well, what would happen if we had another dry year like this one? How much projections in water use would that be? What restrictions would we have to put in?.' Not often can you see a disaster coming a year in advance and certainly the odds are against a disaster next year, but the odds are a lot better now than they would be in other years. So this is a rare opportunity to plan ahead for a disaster that may be coming and prevent it from becoming a disaster.

"It's important to separate optional uses of water from mandatory uses of water. You have to drink; you don't necessarily have to keep your lawn green throughout the year. The more water that gets conserved now, the more water is available for next year if the drought goes on into next year." 

McDade area rancher Melvin Dube has definitely felt the impact of the drought. “It's the worst one I've seen in my lifetime,” he said. “You don't want to have too many of these. It's worse this year and I didn't really recover from the last one. We had some good rains last year, but it didn't fill all my ponds.”

Dube hasn't been able to grow any hay this year. “I have about 600 rolls left from last year, but it's not enough. I should have 900. I may have to start feeding before winter.”

Dube hasn't sold any of his cows yet, but he has sold calves much lighter than he normally does and he will start selling adult cows if the drought continues.

He has been hauling water to one of his pastures for the past two months. He hauls 8,000 gallons a week and may have to increase that to 9,000 gallons because his cattle are drinking more water thanks to the heat.

Two of his pastures are served by Aqua Water. He has one stock tank with water in it, but it isn't quite as full since the Texas Forest Service helicopter used it to help douse last week's fire at Camp Swift (they have promised to replace the water). Two pastures are being supplied with well water. He plans to get yet another meter opened to supply more water.

Dube is having one 50-year-old tank cleaned out so it will hold more water when the rains come. 

Aqua Water is letting landowners hook up for a temporary meter fee of $350. 

The drought has also had terrible consequences for farmers. “It’s been going on longer than just this year,” said Gene Niswander, owner of Yegua Creek Farms. “When we bought the orchard in September 2006, we were having a pretty severe drought.” He said 2007 was a wet year and there have been intermittent rains since, but his trees have never had a chance to recover. 

The orchard has lost acres of trees. Lack of water stresses the trees, which succumb to diseases. 

The 92-acre ranch originally had 3,000 trees. It is now down to 2,000. “And we’re fortunate,” he said. “We’ve got neighbors in Coupland who lost 70 to 80 trees — their entire orchards.”

The orchard has two irrigation reservoirs, that have been dry every year except 2007. An irrigation system fed by six shallow wells is keeping most of the trees alive, but it wasn’t working from 2006 to 2009, which was long enough to kill many trees.

Niswander said native pecan trees are also dying, in an area that’s part of a natural drainage system, a sign that the property has been drying out long term. 

“We’re trying to prepare for continuing drought,” he said. “We will continue to irrigate as long as we can and will only irrigate the ones we think we can keep alive.  We will not replace any trees till we feel comfortable that the drought is ending. We anticipate a very light harvest this year.”

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