Southern Plains Drought Continues to Challenge Row Crops

June 14, 2012 04:11 AM


Many called the Southern Plains drought of 2011 a 100-year drought. According to the Texas AgriLife Extension, the total agricultural pricetag of last year’s dry weather came to $7.6 billion. Livestock was hit the hardest in the state—total losses from the drought reached $3.23 billion.
In row crops, cotton took the biggest loss totaling more than $2 billion.  AgDay’s National Reporter Tyne Morgan takes us to one area of Texas where farmers are dusting off the disaster, planting seed, feeding cattle and hoping for a better year.

The picture to many seems dreary. Each round on a tractor kicks up a miniature dust storm. And every drop of water from a pivot provides a taste of a precious resource that could soon diminish.
In year’s like 2011, it’s a reminder that farming in the Texas Panhandle has to be a passion, especially when Mother Nature sets you up to fail.
"In 2011, I received less than 3 inches of rain here at this location," said Rick Kellison, a rancher in Lockney, Texas.
"Everything we can normally overcome with irrigation, was negated on most fields," explained Sunray, Texas farmer Justin Crownover.
Crownover was forced to abandoned about 10% of his acres. Although that was hard to swallow, 10 percent is a better bargain than most Texas Panhandle farmers faced last year.
"I hope that this is not the new normal. There's a big area here in trouble if it is," said Dewayne Kleman, who farms around Nazareth, Texas.
Even though some areas of the Texas Panhandle have received a little rain in the past month, and are thankful for the moisture no matter how big or how small, they say it will take even more to recharge soil moisture.
"People go out and dig and the first foot or so, but under that it's completely dry," said Plainview, Texas farmer Steve Olson.
The Ogallala Aquifer supplies water to eight states from South Dakota down to the Texas Panhandle. The Aquifer is the main source of irrigation for these farmers. Many fear the aquifer’s water levels are so low, it’s beyond restoration.
"The Aquifer will never get back to where it was pre 2011. It's just not recharging," Kleman said.
"We pump out of aquifer and it’s declining every single year," said Crownover. " So we have a have major problem of trying to be good stewards of what we have left."
Farmers in this area have learned the key to survival is to not give up and make business changes this year in order to carry on their family’s legacy for years to come. This includes switching to more drought tolerant crops.
"We've cut probably 10 percent of our corn acres to cotton. And then also with sorghum seed acres being up this year, that's been a blessing also for us," Crownover said.
"Normally the field behind us would be corn, but we switched to sunflowers because hey have a more vigorous root system that," said Olson.
"It’s made it to where we can't grow corn," said Garrett Kleman, who farms with his father Dewayne. "A lot of guys try to but we don't. Most of what we grow is sorghum silage for our dairy and cattle operation."
It’s not just what farmers are growing, but how they are growing crops. When rain does come, farmers savor every drop. Olson says he’s a big proponent of strip till. He says this conservation method sets up his fields to soak in the water, instead of losing the valuable resource to run-off.
"The other big advantage we're seeing with strip till is the way the root system really takes off and grows deep. We really try to watch what's going on under the ground," said  Olson.
Getting the most crop per drop of water is an area Texas Panhandle farmers want to master, as they know this will separate the innovative farmers from the ones who are just trying to survive. So, they are now discovering, testing and trying to master different tools to continue to be proactive.
"Part of it was we're changing over our nozzles to hopefully be more efficient. We are making it to where we aren't going to have the misting that can easily evaporate in this Texas wind," said Crownover. "The residue, the way we're handling residue is to be more conservative with water. Also, when we pre water, we try to do it in February where there's less evaporation. "
These actions grow in importance as more water restrictions come into play.
"We're good stewards and nobody really likes to be told what to do. So there's some people it's become a very emotional topic for them," said Kellison.
The water restrictions vary on location. Some farmers haven’t even experienced any at all.  
"As far as any water restrictions, there's not any just yet," said Kleman. "There's talk. There are different stories about what you’re allowed to do. Nothing so far."
But Kleman says when you’re already running out of water on most farmers, the restrictions could come too late.
And years like 2011 make farmers wonder how long the valuable water will last. Even though the drought is still fresh in everyone’s minds, last year provided a hard lesson that can’t be taught in any classroom.
"If you didn't take anything out of 2011, it's what not to do," said Crownover. "Our team is ready for 2012, and we’re going to give mother nature a run for its money."
He says it taught more than just farmers the value of water, but local residents. And in typical farmer fashion, all the farmers AgDay visited think not only was 2011 a valuable year to learn lessons, surviving last year built more character than anything else.
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