Hay, cotton growers are hurting by exceptional drought in Central Texas

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THRALE — Anthony Gula looked at the less than an inch of water left in his tank to water his cattle in eastern Williamson County and sighed. “It’s very difficult here,” he said.

Like many farmers and ranchers in the province, the drought is hitting Jolla hard. The cotton crop has decreased significantly due to lack of rain, according to farmers and the owner of the cotton gin. There is a shortage of hay to feed livestock because the drought has killed the grass, according to county Extension Service agents. Farmers and livestock producers are facing the same situation in Bastrop County with a severe hay shortage.

According to the US Drought Monitor map, 100% of Williamson County and 98% of Bastrop County are in exceptional drought, the highest possible level.

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“Exceptional drought means that this type of (short-term) drought tends to occur at this time of year (early fall) of this severity only once every 50 years,” said John Nielsen Gammon, state climatologist and professor of meteorology at Harvard University. Texas A&M University. He added that it would take 1.5 to 2 inches of rain by the end of September to emerge from exceptional drought and into the “slightly better category of severe drought.”

In the Taylor area of ​​eastern Williamson County, about two-tenths of an inch of rain fell from June to August, said Monte Oakes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. The average amount of rain in the Taylor area during the same time period is about 6 inches.

The weather service does not have stations in Bastrop County, but the rainfall in the area is comparable to what nearby Austin-Bergstrom International Airport received, Oakes said. He added that the airport saw 2.5 inches of rain from June to August, compared to its normal average of about 8 inches for those three months.

By Tuesday, parts of eastern Williamson County had not had rain since Memorial Day, said Gary Pastuschuk, Williamson County agent for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. “This is very bad,” he said. “It’s all really dry.”

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If Williamson County gets a moderate amount of rain in September and October, that could help farmers plant winter wheat, winter rye and winter oats starting in November, Pastochuk said. If the county receives 1.5 inches or less this week, it won’t help because soil temperatures are so warm that the water will evaporate, he said.

He added that the spring season started well with enough rain to enable farmers to grow a good crop of field maize.

“A lot of farmers in the Taylor area say they’ve harvested 100 to 125 bushels per acre.”, It is above the normal rate,” he said.

Field corn is sold to feed livestock in feedlots and is also used to produce renewable fuels such as ethanol. It is the No. 1 crop grown in both Williamson and Bastrop counties, according to county extension agents. Farmers typically plant field corn in February and March, Pastochuk said.

But he said cotton is not planted until May and June. Farmers don’t use irrigation to grow crops in Williamson County, so they have to rely on rain, Pastochuk said. Gola said he practices dryland farming because there is no groundwater to use for irrigation.

He said that cotton was not good this year because there was no rain after planting.

“All farmers are now producing about a third of what they normally produce,” Klement Stremiska said. Owner of Waterloo Cotton Gin, northeast of Taylor. During a good year, farmers typically produce two to three bales of cotton per acre, he added. On average, a bale weighs 480 pounds, he said. This year, farmers are getting a bale of cotton per acre, or even half a bale, Strmiska said.

Gula, who grows corn, cotton and sorghum on about 3,000 acres of land in Williamson, Travis, Milam and Bell counties with his brother, said their cotton crop will be about 50% lower than they normally expect.

But he said the worst impact of the drought is on the hay crop. Gula relies on his ability to cut Bermuda grass from his pastures three times during the spring and summer to use as hay for his livestock. This year, like most farmers, he was only able to cut the grass once before the drought set in and the grass stopped growing.

Gula also had to truck water because some of the stock tanks he relies on for his livestock have dried up. Cattle tanks are dug by ranchers to retain rainwater. He said he moves cattle to pastures that have more water.

Strmiska, who also owns Granger Feed and Supply in that city, said he is selling more feed than usual at his store because of the hay shortage.

“People collect cornstalks to feed cows and feed them lower-quality hay, so they have to add protein to keep cows from losing weight,” he said. He sells protein tubs, which consist of 225 pounds of cooked molasses filled with protein sources such as soybean meal.

Dakota Kempkin, Bastrop County agent for Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension Service, said hay shortages are also a problem in Bastrop County.

“A lot of livestock producers have had to cull large portions of their herds because they can’t restock them,” he said. He said the lack of water for livestock is not as big a problem as it is in Williamson County because ranchers have wells.

He said he also expects Bastrop County’s pecan crop to produce fewer nuts because of the water shortage. About half of pecan growers, including large producers, irrigate but half do not, Kempkin said.

Pecan harvest usually begins in October. However, Gary Lehman, a pecan farmer in Bastrop County, said he can already tell he will have a better crop this year than last year. He said he waters pecans, but he has noticed in areas where pecan trees are not irrigated that the trees drop the nuts to the ground before they are ripe. Green pecans that fall from trees will not ripen.

Farmers in Williamson County face other pressures, such as increased development in the area, including a Samsung plant in Taylor. The total number of acres farmed or used as pasture in Williamson County fell from about 309,000 acres in 2019 to 291,000 acres in 2023, said Craig Engelman, executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Williamson County.

But Jola said he and his brother won’t give up farming anytime soon, even though the summer has been terrible.

“We are investors,” he said. “We have time, money and equipment. We have to believe that next year will be better than this year.”

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