After driest fall on record, Texas farmers desperate for ‘liquid gold’

Cotton farmer Steven Brosch talks about his drought conditions in Slaton, Texas on Jan. 25, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Chris Lutter)
Cotton farmer Steven Brosch talks about his drought conditions in Slaton, Texas on Jan. 25, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Chris Lutter)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As drought conditions worsen throughout the Lone Star State, farmers worry about their bottom line. Conditions in West Texas and the Panhandle have cotton growers like Steven Brosch doing their best versions of a “rain dance.”

“We need another good year around here,” Brosch said, explaining that the key to preventing a nightmare scenario requires more of that liquid gold: rain.

Data from the United States Drought Monitor indicates approximately half of Texas is experiencing moderate drought conditions, which is exponentially higher than the 3.19 percent a year ago, and the 1.74 percent during the last week of October.

August, meanwhile, was “the wettest August in about 124 years of data for the entire state,” according to Texas Water Development Board hydrologist Dr. Mark Wentzel. He said dry spells after historic rain is not uncommon.

Firefighters in Amarillo conduct a prescribed burn to eliminate some flammable brush, as parts of Texas' Panhandle experience severe drought conditions. (Nexstar Photo)
Firefighters in Amarillo conduct a prescribed burn to eliminate some flammable brush, as parts of Texas’ Panhandle experience severe drought conditions. (Nexstar Photo)

“It’s not a completely unusual pattern to see that when we go from being extremely wet due to a tropical storm or remnant of a hurricane, to going into a drought,” Wentzel said. “Most recent example that I think was the big drought in 2011 and 2014, and that seems to come right on the heels of Tropical Storm Hermine.”

Brosch said 2011 was a “terrible year,” but he does not feel like he faces circumstances quite like that this year.

“We’re still optimistic,” Brosch mentioned. “Farmers have to be.”

Brosch regularly checks the long-term weather forecasts so he can make the best possible business decisions on what to plant, and when to plant it. Short-term, his concern is “trying to make sure ground isn’t going to blow away.”

“The longer we go without moisture anything you do will turn [the dirt] into powder,” Brosch said. He may forego planting grain sorghum and stick with cotton, depending on the forecast.

Bayer Crop Science senior agronomist Tim Culpepper said lack of rainfall is on the minds of producers across the region.

“A lot of these guys have cover crops for conservation and wheat right now is not doing well in the field for cover crops,” Culpepper said. “The growers are not going to be looking to really spend money until we see a little moisture. So there is a lag phase for growers starting to look to purchase things until we see some rainfall.”

Steve Verett, executive vice president of Plains Cotton Growers, said the forecast “doesn’t look that great.”

Cotton farmer Steven Brosch plows his tractor through one of his cotton fields in Slaton, Texas on Jan. 25, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Chris Lutter)
Cotton farmer Steven Brosch plows his tractor through one of his cotton fields in Slaton, Texas on Jan. 25, 2018. (Nexstar Photo/Chris Lutter)

“We know typically January, February and March are some of our driest months but, that doesn’t make us wonder and wish when we look at the Drought Monitor where we are getting back to moderate or severe drought,” Verett said.

The dry conditions not only affect ag producers, but they also put a strain on first responders.

Information compiled by the Texas A&M Forest Service shows outdoor burn bans are in effect for nearly 100 counties. Following wildfires in the Panhandle, firefighters in Amarillo conducted a prescribed burn this week to mitigate future risks. Lubbock-area fire crews have been called out to multiple cotton burr fires over the last couple of months.

“That epicenter is going to continue to expand, and get larger and moving southward,” Wentzel, who writes TWDB’s “water weekly” newsletter, said. While the dry area continues to grow, all eyes are on April and May.

“By about April, we start getting nervous and by May, we really want to have an average or above average May to help us out with this drought at this point,” he said.

“If we have a wet May, that can turn us away from a drought condition and as we go into our seasonally dry and hot summer, a nice wet May would be nice to prevent us from really hitting the gas pedal on drought,” Wentzel added. “On the other hand, if we have a dry May, that sets us up for a real uptick in drought for the rest of the summer.”

Brosch said he is mapping out a few scenarios to prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best.

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