Travis Miller jokes about his work as a member of the Texas Governor’s Drought Preparedness Council and as the “go-to-guy” for media questions about drought and wildfire.
“I’ve done a good job with this drought,” he says, tongue tucked firmly in his cheek.
He also knows that drought is a serious concern as a good part of the state remains dry going into or well into planting season.
Miller, AgriLife Extension agronomist, says Central and North Texas have been blessed with ample rain since last fall and are poised to make “wheat like we’ve not seen in 15 years. But wheat in West Texas looks bad.”
Much of the South Plains and some areas in South Texas are still dry as well. It’s more of the same pattern that’s persisted for more than a decade, Miller says. “Since 2000, it’s been dry about every other year. We hear a lot of discussion about climate change, and this seems like change.”
But it’s not particularly new, he says. “If we look back 110 years, we can see that we had more drought before 1960 than we’ve had after 1960.”
He says records show severe drought in 1915 and 1918 and then in the 1940s and 1950s.
“If you live in Texas you will deal with drought,” he says. “We adjust. Texas farmers and ranchers know that drought is part of it.”
He says problems arise when after four or five years of good moisture farmers “get lulled” and plant one crop where they should plant something else. “A lot of corn has moved into grain sorghum areas. Sorghum is better suited to iffy conditions. In a good year, corn will produce better, but I think people miss a bet on (not planting) sorghum. Cotton is also a good bet.”
But he’s philosophical about farmer options. “A grower has to follow the formula that works best for him,” he says. “But even with the best corn technology, I see opportunities for sorghum.”
He says new corn genetics that offer some drought tolerance have helped. Brent Bean, a Texas AgriLife Agronomist at Amarillo, Miller says, has shown as much as a 10-bushel per acre advantage with those drought-tolerant hybrids compared to other corn hybrids—in dry conditions.
Miller is somewhat hopeful that weather patterns will change. Central and North Texas have emerged from drought status and the High Plains area has received some rainfall in the past few weeks.
“But the High Plains may be set up for another (dry) year,” he says. Climatologists give an equal chance that conditions will be above average or below average for moisture. “La Nina has transitioned to a neutral status,” he says.
More rain needed
But meager rains so far have not recharged the soil profile as much as farmers need to plant with confidence that the crop will emerge and grow off well. He says Lamb, Bailey and Parmer Counties are “some of the (driest) in the Panhandle.
“But farmers will plant. They have to in order to satisfy insurance requirements. They all prefer to make a crop.”
He says crop insurance kept a lot of Texas farmers in business after last year’s historic drought. “And now we have pressure at the federal level to reduce funding for crop insurance. That would be a big mistake. Direct payments will be gone,” he concedes, “but crop insurance is not a waste of money.”
He says farmers can only insure 65 percent to 70 percent of their typical crop yield. “They don’t make any money on crop insurance,” he says. “They just hope to pay off their debt. I don’t know of any farmer who can make a 30 percent profit on an investment.”
He says cutting conservation programs would also be a bad idea. “You want to see the sky turn dark? That would have happened last year without good conservation programs. The Conservation Reserve Program was good for marginal land that was iffy for row crops. It did well in trees and grass and increased wildlife habitat.”
Miller says last year’s record-setting drought may have done some good by reminding people that water is not as plentiful as they might like to think. “No one has ever seen a drought like that,” he says. “That’s the worst single-year drought on record. It might not be as bad as the multiple-year droughts of the 50s but it may be moving that way.”
He says that severe, long-term dry spell “may have gotten some folks’ attention and made them realize that water conservation is important. We need to get back to understanding that water is a more precious commodity than oil.”
The 2011 drought affected more than agriculture. “Well over 1,000 of 4,688 water systems (in Texas) were at some stage of drought watch,” he says. Some towns were running out of water.
He says water districts have begun to impose more strict regulations on users, including agriculture. “Each of these districts has a different resource to look after,” Miller says. “Some have a resupplying aquifer; others do not. Some are either static or declining, and district boards have to look at maintaining that resource.”
He says most of us “have not had to limit what we can do with water. We may have to re-think that.”
He says San Antonio has done some unique and innovative things to conserve water. “And, in South Australia, they have no groundwater and no well water. They use all rain water and get by on less than 30 gallons a day per person. So there are things we can do.”
He also acknowledges that governments and society have “to realize the importance of agriculture food and fiber production.”
He says agriculture also must realize the need for more efficient irrigation. “For instance, subsurface drip irrigation in the High Plains and into Southwest Texas may offer 97 percent to 98 percent water use efficiency. That’s about as good as it gets.”
A Texas native, Miller says he remembers when folks could use all the water they wanted to in West Texas. “Now we see a lot of those wells that can’t produce enough water. It’s a limited resource so we have to use it wisely.”
Changes are coming
He says in 25 years crop production on the Texas High Plains will be different—different crops or different production systems. Things have already changed. “In some areas, we still have enough water to grow corn but it’s less than we had 10 years ago,” he says. “A lot of farmers have switched from corn to cotton. We may see another step, from irrigated cotton to dryland production, pasture or wheat.
“We could have too little water to grow the crops we once did. Dairies and feedlots also use a lot of water. And they need forage.”
Corn comes in from the Midwest, Miller says, but hauling in silage would be an expensive nightmare. “Silage needs to be grown locally.”
He says corn silage may phase into sorghum silage, which takes about 60 percent as much water.
He’s a bit cautious about the pending planting season for the High Plains, despite recent rain events. “We don’t want to go into a growing season with a dry soil profile,” he says. “We can’t catch up.”
He says Southern Plains cotton farmers have until May to begin planting. “But grain needs to go in soon. Farmers can wait until late June to pant sorghum but they can’t delay corn.”
Miller says Texas farmers and ranchers are a tough lot, and Texas Research and Extension programs will continue to work with them to develop new systems and new crop options to overcome the harsh growing conditions they often face.
“We will struggle to find answers,” he says.