As Texas swelters, crops and cattle are increasingly at risk

One year after a devastating drought, Texas agriculture watchers are wary that the positive effects of a wet spring could be zapped up with extreme heat.

As Texas swelters, crops and cattle are increasingly at risk
Cotton fields near the High Plains town of Ralls, about 30 miles east of Lubbock, on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Cotton producers worry the whiplash in extreme weather could yield another poor year for the industry. Credit: Trace Thomas for The Texas Tribune

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LUBBOCK — May brought an unusual sight to the arid High Plains — rain, and lots of it.

Parched lands that previously begged for water welcomed the downpour. Farmers, who were still recovering from the drought-ridden season before, could finally sigh in relief.

Then came the cruel irony — the rain didn’t stop for weeks. The same water people prayed for all year was now flooding farmers out of their fields and stopping them from planting their crops on time.

Now, as the entire state sees blazing temperatures that only keep climbing, farmers are questioning if the whiplash-inducing weather will lead to another busted year.

“We’re better than we were last year because of the rainfall,” said Calvin Trostle, an agronomist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension in Lubbock. “The question now is what will our rainfall look like the rest of the year? That could make or break a lot of crops.”

The heat has been unrelenting across the state. Last month, there were an unusually high number of days when temperatures were above 100 degrees. This month, El Paso has set seven new daily heat records and is on pace for its warmest month ever on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

What’s going on in the High Plains is just as strange. The astounding amount of rain — 200% of the normal rainfall in the Panhandle and 130% in the Lubbock area — helped keep the region slightly cooler than the rest of the state at the start of the summer. The current U.S. Drought Monitor shows most of the region is clear from drought. But sweltering heat waves are sapping the moisture from the ground.

“Unless some rainfall appears soon, these high-temperature anomalies will increase through the end of July,” said Victor Murphy, climate service program manager with the National Weather Service.

This would be devastating for the High Plains. The region’s economy took a big hit last year when the drought caused billions of dollars in losses, which has pushed farmers to lobby for additional disaster assistance in the 2023 Farm Bill. With Farm Bill discussions underway, Sen. John Cornyn visited Lubbock to talk about the high-stakes legislation that pays for crop insurance as well as the USDA’s rural development programs and the nation’s food subsidy program known as SNAP. The massive legislation is projected to reach $1 trillion.

Garrett Couts with the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce emphasized how important agriculture is to the region that sits right below the Texas Panhandle. In Lubbock County, there are more than 1,000 farms and 530,000 acres of farmland that people depend on.

“Everybody and every single industry on the South Plains, even if it isn’t directly involved in agriculture, is most certainly impacted by it,” said Couts, the agriculture committee chair for the chamber who has worked on a Farm Bill before.

Cotton is the backbone of agriculture in the High Plains region and supplies 30% of the nation’s cotton, but it has not been spared from the unhinged Texas weather. After the pressure of the insurance deadline forced many cotton producers to plant late, the crop is now dependent on the rain from a month ago to bloom in the peak of the summer.

“All the fields behind me are yet to bloom and once we go into that, your water use increases dramatically,” said Mark Brown, director of field services for Plains Cotton Growers. “Cotton can sit there and hang on until the rainfall, but if it waits too long then the potential of the crop is limited.”

There are also concerns about how crops and livestock aren’t getting relief from the heat at night. According to Murphy with NWS, the average low nighttime temperature for Lubbock this month has been 71.2 degrees Fahrenheit, about 2.4 degrees warmer than normal, making it the ninth-warmest period on record.

This is a warming trend seen nationwide. In the last 30 days, there have been more than 2,800 times a city or town’s coolest nighttime temperature was hotter than previous records. During the same time, NOAA found about 683 times when the hottest nighttime temperature was cooler.

Murphy said this ratio has been consistent over two decades.

“One of the prevailing wisdoms with climate change is that the biggest impact, at least initially, will be felt in warmer nighttime temperatures,” Murphy said. “It’s especially difficult on cattle and livestock, they have a difficult time cooling off at night.”

Murphy said the onset of the U.S. summer monsoon season usually occurs in mid-July, which typically ends extremely hot temperatures, but there are no signs of this happening through Aug. 1. According to a NOAA outlook, the abnormally hot days are going to continue across the U.S for the rest of the month.

Data from NOAA shows there are low chances for rain through the end of July, but the rain that did fall last month is helping for now because it’s stored in the soil. Trostle with A&M AgriLife likened soil to a reservoir, saying its ability to hold water is strong but can only withstand so much.

“The soil can be full of water or empty,” Trostle said. “If it’s running low and not getting refilled, it can’t sustain those plants on a hot day.”

Trostle said an important management strategy in the future might be changing when crops are planted as a way to avoid exposing crops to the extremes of summer heat. He has seen this be an effective strategy for some corn and sorghum farmers in Central Texas.

“If climate change becomes an issue that does begin to affect planting decisions, then it’s possible going forward we could see farmers plant a crop a week earlier than they would have in the last decade,” Trostle explained.

Until then, he said, crops will continue to be vulnerable to whatever Mother Nature throws at the farmers who manage them.

“It’s like a person, we know what it feels like to be sapped by walking outdoors into a furnace, and we need to eat and drink water to maintain the status quo,” Trostle said. “But crops don’t get a choice to turn on the AC or get a drink — they’re stuck with whatever’s available.”

The deadline for the Farm Bill is Sept. 30, though Cornyn said at the Lubbock event that his colleagues are indicating they may need more time. Cornyn said crop insurance funding is one of his priorities for the legislation.

“We know Mother Nature can be fickle, and so many of these folks depend on that safety net,” Cornyn said. “It’s a high-risk proposition in any event, but it just makes things more difficult when you don’t have that safety net.”

Disclosure: Texas A&M AgriLife has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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