Texas is no stranger to drought. Extended periods of hot, dry weather with little to no rainfall are commonplace in many areas across the state. Still, the impacts of drought can be more difficult to adapt to. Drought is a complex issue that stretches beyond just lack of rainfall – each of us is impacted, but our state’s farms and ranches are often the hardest hit in periods of drought.
A Farmer’s Historical Perspective
In the semi-arid climate of the Texas High Plains, one of the most agriculturally-productive regions in the state, fourth-generation farmer Wesley Spurlock is acquainted all too well with drought. In fact, he said he started his farming career amidst a drought in 1980 after graduating college.
Looking back historically into the 1980s, 1990s and the early 2000s, Spurlock recounted there always being some period of drought. The worst drought to hit their farm came in 2011 following a year of 30 inches of rain and a bumper crop.
“In the middle of September 2010, the rain stopped. We just didn’t realize it wasn’t going to rain for three years beyond that point,” he said.
Spurlock explained that during the 2011–2013 time frame, their farm only received between 3-6 inches of rain each year – never approaching their average 18 inches of annual rainfall. In 2014 onward, Spurlock said his farm had some fair years. Then in 2022, extreme drought struck again.
“It just makes it tough. All the hard work you do on your dry land, your field corners and your irrigated acres…we can’t even keep them healthy through those tremendous days of heat,” he said.
Impacts of Drought
What makes drought incredibly challenging is its unpredictability. In fact, the National Drought Mitigation Center describes drought as a “creeping phenomenon because what may first appear to be merely a dry spell can only be discerned in hindsight as the early days of a drought.” Drought, while a natural occurrence in our environment, is a looming reality that affects agriculture and the greater economy.
The first and most obvious impact of drought is lack of water availability, which is an experience most Texans have faced at some point or another. For homeowners, consequences can come in the form of watering restrictions.
“For a homeowner who cares for their yard and waters it and does everything they can, if all of a sudden, they can’t water their yard, they can’t fertilize it, they can’t do anything that makes their yard really look pretty and it begins to die out, it would kind of have an effect on you,” Spurlock said.
Similarly, when farmers experience back-to-back years of drought, it affects their farms on a much larger scale. Despite utilizing conservation practices to support soil health, Spurlock explained that the prolonged, harsh conditions of multi-growing season drought can be devastating to soil health.
“You’re always trying to leave the soil in better shape. When you get into these droughts, you actually reverse all of that organic matter we worked hard to create and aren’t able to keep our soil in as good a shape as we had it,” Spurlock said.
Brandt Underwood, agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Texas, said another readily noticed impact of drought on the farm is a reduction in harvestable yield across all crops. In severe drought, dryland crops often experience limited harvest, and even crop failure in some cases. Drought also affects rangeland and limits grazing opportunities for livestock herds.
“The next thing we see is producers don’t have as much commodity take to market. Then, generally, we see an uptick in commodity prices,” Underwood said.
Increased commodity prices have a ripple effect across the marketplace. Underwood explained that for ranchers, they begin paying more for grain to feed their livestock. Consumers begin feeling the effects when purchasing textiles like clothes or food items from the grocery store. When food and clothing costs increase this puts a greater strain on consumers who have less funds for discretionary spending
Spurlock said when a drought sets in and continues to persist, farmers and ranchers also spend less. Not only do they buy vehicles, tractors, and equipment less often, but they also spend less on fertilizer, seed and chemicals.
“Each thing you do trying to save money but still try to make a living, takes a dollar out of the local economy that’s not being spent. It makes it tough on the local businesses that depend on the profits coming off these farms,” Spurlock said.
In fact, the Texas Water Development Board reports that the 2011 drought of record cost nearly $7.62 billion in agricultural losses.
Agriculture can be a risky business. Farmers wear many hats – they must be meteorologists, bankers, soil scientists, conservationists and much more. When Mother Nature introduces a layer of difficulty with drought, farmers are forced to make play-by-play decisions to keep their farms in business while doing the best they can to protect natural resources.
Implementing conservation practices is one way farmers can remain more resilient amidst a drought. Stan Bradbury, NRCS rangeland management specialist, said conservation is important year-round because drought is imminent in many parts of Texas.
“There’s a saying that we use: ‘each day that you experience a drought, you become one day closer to a rain, but likewise, each day it is raining, you’re one day closer to the next drought.’ Knowing that we’re going to experience another drought no matter if it’s short term or long term, water conservation is very important,” Bradbury said.
The NRCS is Texas is helping agricultural producers reduce the effects of drought and reach a faster recovery through conservation planning as well as technical and financial assistance.
From a crop standpoint, Underwood said crop rotation with a residue management system like no-till or strip till are two of the leading conservation practices that help mitigate drought.
“The reason we want to do this is once we start maintaining those crop residues and limit our tillage, we’re able to build up our soil structure. We’re looking to get our infiltration rate as fast as we can get it on that soil profile so that we can retain the most amount of precipitation we get wherever it falls,” Underwood said.
Decisions about irrigation use during a drought are also tricky. Underwood said farmers use several data points to make their decision about where to focus their water resources. They must consider when they might receive rainfall, when the crop will need water during critical growth periods, while also making sure water is available for future use.
“In most cases, the only time they are going to water is when it would appear to be economically viable,” Underwood explained. “The truth of the matter is if they can make a yield and irrigate less, that’s what they would prefer to do. Just like any other industry, the further you can cut your input, the more profit you’ll have.”
Through irrigation water management, Brandt said farmers can utilize a series of techniques and technologies, such as irrigation scheduling and efficient irrigation systems, that allow them to apply water to their crops when and where it is needed with minimal waste.
Just as soil is important for growing crops, it is also vital for livestock grazing lands, too. Bradbury said one of the guiding principles is that soil is not left bare or uncovered for long periods of time. That way when rainfall does come, it can be captured by rangeland and provide water resources for native grasses and plants. One of the ways to achieve this is through prescribed grazing.
NRCS defines prescribed grazing as a “system that involves an orderly sequence of grazing and resting grassland.” By doing so, it prevents livestock from overgrazing pastures, allowing them to remain healthy and more resilient in drought.
“NRCS can provide drought management strategies such as key monitoring dates to consider making decisions like reducing livestock numbers and methods of doing so,” Bradbury added.
Another thing to consider, is that even though an area may receive rain, it may take a while to recover from extreme drought. This means it can take time for surface and groundwaters to restore. Bradbury said it also means that grazing lands need time to recover, too.
“Once the plant becomes stressed and loses nutrients and carbohydrates, it takes time for that plant to restore those, even with available soil moisture. So just as important as planning for the drought is planning for post drought, giving those plants the opportunity for what we call rest and recovery, not going back and grazing plants until they’re properly recovered,” Bradbury said.
Despite the challenges that come with unpredictable weather, farmers and ranchers still have an important job to do – to feed and clothe our local communities and people across the globe Spurlock said it is important for agricultural producers to remain positive.
“Weather is cyclical. Agriculture is cyclical. We know that when we’re in these dry times and things aren’t looking near as good, that they will get better and it will always improve. So, you’ve got to be an optimist and you’ve got to have that entrepreneurial shift to continue,” Spurlock said.
For more information about drought planning, contact your local NRCS office.