Praying for rain: As drought deepens, local farmers at mercy of Mother Nature

Farmers and ranchers these days are equal parts scientists, entrepreneurs and risk-takers. But, despite knowledge in animal science or agricultural economics and tech-savvy approaches to problem-solving, one aspect of the job hasn’t changed.

 

A little rain must fall.

And, after 121 consecutive days without any measurable precipitation, even a few drops would be greatly appreciated.

“Normally, in a good year you, couldn’t see the ground,” said local farmer Harold Artho while standing in what could be described as a sea of hard, brown dirt stretching to the horizon.

“All you could see is the green stuff.”

Artho and many of his Randall County farming brethren are shaking their heads this winter. The wheat is disappearing. Some of the cattle that graze on that wheat are being pulled from the fields earlier than normal. Cotton and corn might be in trouble.

Local farmers and agricultural professionals know how they got to this point. They also know that, as of right now, it’s not the worst of times. It’s getting dire, but not as bad as 2011, when just 7.01 inches fell all year. For comparison, even with no rain since mid-October, 2017 was a relative flood with 26.48 inches.

They do wonder, if the rains continue to stay away, how will this chapter in the long-running saga of local ag history will be remembered.

How it got to this point

“Last year, we were blessed with a lot of early spring rains that benefited us not only from a wheat standpoint and wheat-harvest standpoint, but also for row crops,” said Randall County Texas A&M AgriLife Extension agent Dr. J.D. Ragland.

The most widely harvested row crops in this area are cotton, corn and sorghum.

The rain seeped into the ground, which was wet about three-to-four feet below the surface. While that’s good news, it’s the top eight-to-10 inches of soil that is the problem.

Randy Darnell is a first-generation farmer. He graduated from Amarillo High School in 1979 and Texas Tech University in ’83. His farm is spread between northwest Randall County and northeast Deaf Smith County. He has grown wheat, corn, sorghum and cotton, but last year he grew nothing but cotton as his summer crop.

“Farming, for me, is always economics,” he said. “The economics of growing cotton versus my alternatives were not even close.

“I have to do what makes me the most money or gives me the greatest chance to make money.”

He agrees with Ragland that the soil below the surface is wet.

“That moisture is in the soil, but we’re going to have to have some rainfall to get that top eight-to-10 inches wet,” Darnell said.

Rick Hales owns Hales Angus Farm, which is south of Canyon along U.S. Highway 87. The farm has been in operation since 1962, making it one of the oldest operations within the American Angus Association, Hales said. The Canyon High School and Abilene Christian University graduate said he farms but is primarily a cattleman.

“The wheat pasture is usually our staple in the wintertime, and the wheat pasture has lost the top moisture,” Hales said. “The winds have been blowing, and we haven’t had any rain in probably 110 days. It’s making the wheat crop pull up, and it’s disappearing.

“A lot of cattle are wheat-pasture cattle. They put them on early in the winter, run them through the winter and take them off in the spring. But they’re having to pull them off 30 days to 45 days early because the wheat’s just gone.

“We had record rainfall this summer. We couldn’t get it to stop raining, and now we can’t get it to start.”

Wade Davis is another area farmer who understands the drought’s dynamics. Davis graduated from Canyon High School in 1998 and Amarillo College in 2004.

“Guys who are planting summer crops — cotton, corn, sorghum, hay — they’re definitely concerned because at this point of the year this is when we build up our reserves in moisture,” he said. “You know one inch of rain will last you a lot longer in the winter than in the summer. This is when we bank on getting moisture.”

How bad is it?

In the fall, Artho plants wheat. In June, he harvests his wheat and plants grain sorghum. In the fall, he harvests his sorghum and the process repeats. The 58-year-old Hereford High School graduate has been farming for more than 45 years. He and his wife — without the aid of hired hands — have 2,000 acres; two sections in Randall County and another near Wildorado.

“It’s beyond belief,” he said describing the lack of moisture. “Normally, I have a few winter weeds come up; they have come up and they’ve died. I usually do a little spraying to kill them, but they are gone.

“I didn’t irrigate my winter wheat. I should have. But the price isn’t real good, and it’s expensive to irrigate. As far as cattle, normally I run cattle in the winter. I don’t have a hoof. So, it’s pretty dry.

“A lot of my neighbors who planted real early and put cattle on are pulling cattle off two months early, three months early. I have noticed even trees starting to die because there’s just nothing there for them to live on.”

Hales said it’s still early in the drought, but the drier the ground, the more dire the situation becomes.

“People start selling their cattle because they don’t have the feed to feed them,” he said. “That’s getting pretty serious. It takes a long time to put together a group of cattle, they’re quite expensive. When you have to go sell them and start back up when the conditions get right, usually you sell them cheaper than when you buy them back.”

What does the future hold

Artho said if the drought continues for the next couple of months, he predicts not much corn will be planted.

Corn is usually planted by the first of May. The same could be said for cotton, which has to be in the ground by the end of April.

“If you get down eight inches and below, it’s wet,” he said, “but six inches and up, it’s dry. And if you don’t get enough deep moisture the corn won’t make.

“If this drought continues, I see some sorghum being put in and a lot of hay. Hay you can plant in July and August and still get something out of it.”

If it doesn’t rain in the next 30 days, Artho said, he might need to use a ripper to clod up his fields.

If he can get enough dirt clods on the surface, he’s confident his soil won’t blow away, which is a major concern for local farmers.

Hales said he’s also worried about the increased possibility of grass fires, which thrive during dry times.

“It was like this last year, and all the wildfires were going on in the eastern part of the Panhandle,” he said. “We hope that does not take place again anywhere. We’re all subject to a fire.”

How long the drought will last is anybody’s guess — the National Weather Service has said there’s no measurable precipitation in the forecast — but most farmers will say that one thing is certain: It will rain again.

“The old adage in agriculture around here is just be faithful,” Darnell said. “It always rains, and it always has.”

Davis has faith.

“One thing I like to tell guys, and I’m not saying they’re down and out, ‘The good Lord has always taken care of us, and he’s always provided for us,’” Davis said.

Hales agrees.

“The only thing I have to go by is the Farmer’s Almanac,” he said. “It says later on in the spring we’re going to return to a more normal weather pattern. So that’s what we’re in hopes of.

“You just ask the good Lord for good moisture because he’s the one in control anyway. You understand in agriculture if you think you’re in control you figure out pretty quick that you’re not. You just do the best you can.”

Praying for rain: Record dry streak ‘couldn’t happen at a better time’

How dry is it?

Since record-keeping began in 1892, 2011 is the driest year on record in Amarillo at 7.01 inches. A normal year of precipitation is 20.36 inches. Here’s a look at rainfall since the record 2011 drought.

2018: None

2017: 26.48 (13th wettest)

2016: 17.20

2015: 34.63 (fourth wettest)

2014: 19.40

2013: 15.20 (19th driest)

2012: 12.33 (seventh driest)

2011: 7.01 inches (driest year on record)

Source: National Weather Service Amarillo

INSIDE

Farmers say that, if the area has to be in the midst of a record dry streak, at least it’s in winter. A5

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