This current dry spell hasn’t yet been as tragic for West Texas farmers and ranchers as, say, the 2011 drought — but it’s hard not to make comparisons.
The biggest difference between the two is, of course,the timing. The winter months are often times when Lubbock gets the least amount of precipitation, this year just much more extreme. It’s been 94 days since Lubbock officially saw any measurable rainfall - just shy of the all-time record of 98 days - and it’s a similar story across the region.
But the winter months are typically dry across West Texas, and crops like cotton, sorghum, corn and peanuts aren’t going in the ground for a few months still. Most farmers are in the planning period for this year’s crop.
Still, even a little rain in the off season is needed.
Planting season isn’t all too far around the corner, and some prep work is required before then. A few steady inches of rain soon would be a big help. Growers seem to always play up their optimism, so they believe it’ll come. But if those few inches don’t come soon, then growers will be in a tough spot before the first seed is even planted.
Cotton grower Lloyd Arthur of Arthur Farms near Rawls said it’s getting near the point where he and his crew are beginning to look for things to do because it’s too dry to take care of what should be getting done.
Standing in his field Friday morning, Arthur forced his soil probe down into the ground and pulled out a few feet of soil; the first foot was so dry it caught in the wind when it was pressed. Arthur said it’s hard not to think of 2011 - the driest year on record in Lubbock, when only 5.86 inches was recorded, according to the National Weather Service.
“I can remember 2011, the severe drought year,” said Arthur. “I’m seeing some very close resemblance between the two… the difference is that we were dry throughout the whole root zone in 2011. We dug some holes just a few days ago and it is hard dry, but you get below that and it’s moisture you can grab hold to. So a good couple of two-inch, slow rains and we’re caught back up. That looks promising. But is it going to happen?”
That’s what his soil probe showed, too. More than a foot below and there was some noticeable moisture.
Arthur said there’s not much he can do right now when the topsoil is so dry.
Now is when most farmers are wanting to tillage plow, turn the soil and add fertilizer, he said. There are very few people doing it right now because it’ll hurt the equipment and that fresh soil will just blow away, he continued.
“We’re kind of just waiting, but there’s only so long you can wait,” Arthur said. “We haven’t done any pre-fertilization, we haven’t done any pre-weed control. It’s all because, right now, the topsoil is so dry and we wouldn’t get good incorporation. We’re just waiting, because if it’s dry from here on, I’d be putting an expense out there I wouldn’t utilize. With budget restraints already stressed, we’re looking at it from different ways of management this year.”
If and when the area does get rain in the next few months, Arthur said there will be tractors fired up everywhere. Because growers have been holding off, Arthur predicted most people’s equipment is ready to go. Once the area does get that good rain, Arthur said much of that pre-treatment can get finished in less than a month.
So there’s still time for that precipitation before the cotton planting season around late April, early May.
Steve Verett, executive vice president of Plains Cotton Growers, said winter months are historically dry, but he said they’re going on extensive days without moisture because there was little rainfall in the Lubbock area in late fall.
Verett is optimistic.
“It’s concerning, but if we were talking and it was the end of March or the first of April and it was like this, we’d be much more concerned,” Verett said. “A good couple inches of rain that’ll fall right, you know, we’ll be back. It’ll get us back in shape to where we’ll be set for folks to do any type of plowing and land preparation. Then another planting rain and we’ll be off to the races.”
As of Saturday evening the National Weather Service is showing a slight chance for rain on Friday.
Cotton growers aren’t the only folks hoping for rain.
Brent Bean is the director of agronomy with the United Sorghum Checkoff Program in Amarillo, and said farmers have a few months to get moisture before it’ll truly impact the 2018 growing year.
In the meantime, he advises farmers to pull soil samples to see nutrient levels, and shop around to get the best deals on supplies.
“It’s dry right now and that longer-term forecast for the next three or four months is anticipating that it may be dryer than normal, so you want to cut your input costs, or keep them down as much as possible,” Bean said.
Arthur said one of these costs that farmers with irrigation systems are debating now is whether to water their fields. It’s surprising how expensive that is due to just energy costs. Arthur has a spreadsheet going back years with all his watering information — in 2016 it cost him about $6.80 per acre to water an inch. He has 1,800 acres of farmland he can irrigate, so putting an inch of water on it would cost $12,240.
In all of 2016, Arthur said he watered 8.4 acre inches. In 2011 he watered 16 acre inches.
One of Arthur’s neighboring farmers was watering Friday morning. Arthur said he’s considered it, but ultimately he intends to hold off a while longer. He said if 2011 taught him anything, it’s that irrigation cannot beat Mother Nature. Watering would be a short-term fix, and eventually Arthur said they’ll need rain.
Bean said unfortunately the wheat crop didn’t make it this winter in most areas. Arthur had planted winter wheat in some of his field as a cover crop, but said as soon as it sprouted he stopped getting rain and it died from dehydration.
Just to show what would happen, Arthur took out his 12-row strip till on Friday and tilled a row. As soon as it started lifting soil a cloud of dust formed in the air and stayed even after Arthur stopped. Moist soil is down below, but too deep to be lifted. What was left in the field was rows of a sandy-looking mixture and large clots of soil.
After it was tilled, Arthur said there was no way he could stop the wind from taking that soil with it.