Texas Ranchers Wrapped in Drought as 2011 Begins
story by Beverly Moseley
Weather extremes dominated headlines as 2010 came to a close. On the west coast, California was inundated with flood waters. On the east coast, frigid temperatures and blizzard like snows blanketed states. Nestled in between these forces of nature was drought stricken Texas.
Across much of Texas, landowners approached the New Year with a watchful eye to the sky hopeful for rainfall that would slack the drought's thirst. Many ranchers are once again faced with watching their water sources, soil and winter forages dry up with not much relief in sight.
"We already have a strong La Nina set up in the Pacific. That usually means dry, warm weather for Texas," said John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist in College Station. "Through March, we'll be looking at above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation."
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, extreme drought conditions have reached across 13 counties in southeast Texas as of Dec. 23. Eight counties in the Big Bend area also were suffering under extreme drought. Abnormally dry to severe drought conditions covered almost all of the state's 254 counties due to rainfall deficits that reached upwards of 20 inches in some areas.
Riding across Sammy Catalena's Brazos County ranch in late December, the face of drought could be seen in the dried up stock ponds and brittle winter pastures with soils as hard as concrete.
"It's unbelievable. I've never seen it like this before," said Catalena, as he approached a dried up stock pond that a dozer operator was cleaning out and enlarging. "I can't remember when it's been this bad."
Catalena's 2,400-acre ranch is home to Catalena Rodeo Company's numerous bucking bulls and horses, along with his commercial cattle operation. The drought has depleted his existing forage of valuable nutrients so he's been providing hay to his livestock since early November - a month earlier than in 2009.
Many farmers and ranchers tried no-tilling winter pastures for oats and rye. This conservation practice can prove beneficial during drought because it helps to conserve soil moisture.
In 2009, Catalena no-tilled 150 acres with oats and rye for his commercial heifers to forage on through the winter. In 2010, with no rain in sight, what land he did no-till, fertilize and plant in oats and rye for his livestock, lay barren by late December.
Catalena knows about managing through drought. He knows when this one breaks, there will be another. He works to manage his land and forages productively so his weakened landscape will have the best opportunity to recover when the drought does break.
He keeps a close eye on his rangeland's livestock carrying capacity or stocking rate, culling when necessary, and he strives to not overgraze his pastures. These are management practices experts say can help land and forages weather a drought better.
"When it comes to stocking rates, they must be flexible and balanced with the forage inventory that the ranch is capable of supporting," said Kent Ferguson, Texas' rangeland management specialist for the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). "In the state of Texas, there are more dry years than normal or wet years. You have to stock your ranch for a dry year and keep your base herd stocked for a dry year."
Ferguson recommended stocking ranch's at 75 percent of the carry capacity of the land.
"That will allow for a 25 percent buffer to take you through the bad times," he added.
Ranchers also should take into account all animals making a demand on forages, such as deer or horses.
"A real common mistake producers make is not taking into account everything in the pasture," Ferguson said.
He also recommended that ranchers:
- Utilize local experts, along with evaluation tools such as a web-based drought monitor and indexes to assist in assessing the situation.
- Inventory and monitor forages.
- Take into consider ground coverage.
- Monitor stocking rates.
- Keep in mind that it can take some drought stricken land up to two years to fully recover.
A drought will drive home to a rancher just how critical it is to know their forages and what their land is capable of producing.
"You've got to know your plants and the requirements for those plants to be healthy, sustainable and productive," Ferguson said. "If you do not know your crop, it's real hard to manage because you don't know the requirements. That's why it's so critical to keep your animal numbers in balance with the actual on the ground forage production."
For more information on drought, conservation practices and stocking rates visit: www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov, http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/, http://animalscience.tamu.edu/livestock-species/beef/, or http://climatexas.tamu.edu/.
Sammy Catalena surveys a dried up stock tank that he's having cleaned out and enlarged. Catalena's 2,400-acre ranch is home to Catalena Rodeo Company's numerous bucking bulls and horses, along with his commercial cattle operation. The face of drought can be seen in the dried up stock ponds and brittle winter pastures with soils as hard as concrete.
Debris hanging on the fence line shows just how low the water level has gotten in one livestock tank on Sammy Catalena's drought stricken Brazos County ranch. Catalena said some levels have dropped 10 to 12 feet and are steadily shrinking.
Sammy Catalena says that some water slews on the ranch that have always held water are now dry.