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Rainfall to bring some relief as drought worries worsen across South Plains

Kimberly Vardeman

Weather forecasters expect more rain to fall over the next few days and into next week – a welcome sign for agriculturalists who have been struggling with limited water resources.

Friday’s partly cloudy weather forecast brings with it a 24% chance of showers with a high of 83 degrees and a low of 58 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Scattered thunderstorms are predicted for the evenings of Monday through Thursday next week, potentially boosting groundwater levels needed for crop irrigation as spring planting season gives way to the summer growing season.

May’s sparse rainfalls are below the yearly averages typically experienced in the region and the current drought conditions throughout Lubbock County are expected to persist, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s drought monitor. As of this week, nearly half of the state is experiencing varying degrees of drought and 5.8 million Texans reside in areas afflicted by drought, according to the Texas drought monitor webpage.

Despite this, NWS Meteorologist Joe Merchant said the impending rain is a cause for optimism in the ag community.

“The 30-year average for May is 2.64 (inches), and we're at 2.13 right now for this month,” Merchant said. “Which — if we get a half-inch — basically puts us at normal. And if we're able to get an inch or more in some spots we'll be above normal for May, and then that does tend to set us up going into the end of spring and into the summer.”

Measurable precipitation did not fall at Texas Star Co-op Cotton Gin’s plants in Slaton and Wilson until April 9, according to the business’s website. Overall bales ginned for the company’s 2022 growing season were also down significantly from the previous year, having ginned 185,921 bales of cotton in 2021 compared to just 36,365 last year.

Given the huge impact the drought had on last year’s production, Kody Bessent, CEO of Plains Cotton Growers, said every last drop of rainwater is important for the crops.

“We certainly hope that we peaked the drought this previous growing season, up until most recently with the recent rainfall,” Bessent said. “Last year was a pretty catastrophic year on all the industry. Not just producers, but all of infrastructure combined with that having a pretty big impediment and a financial impact on all segments related to the cotton industry.”

In January, researchers from Texas Tech’s International Center for Agricultural Competitiveness published a study of the regional economic impacts of the 2022 drought which found the reduced yield from cotton crops led to an estimated $1.2 billion loss in economic activity. As a result, growers were eligible for federal crop insurance payments, but the importance of cotton as an economic driver for the region means drought conditions make it exceedingly difficult for the ag community to prosper.

Precipitation over the next few weeks stands to benefit this year’s cotton crop tremendously as growers begin to monitor its progress over the summer before beginning to harvest in the fall. While it is difficult to quantify exactly how much rain is needed to support a robust crop, Bessent said the perfect growing conditions often elude growers in the South Plains who find ways to make do anyway.

Drought difficulties present problems for ranchers, too, as they raise water-intensive livestock in a region where conservation is tricky. Brady Miller, director of market, membership and education for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association in Amarillo, said the most recent drought harkens back to the drought of 2011, the driest year in the state’s recorded history that averaged just 14.8 inches of rain.

“[Cattle feeders are] excited to see it rain, we talk about it pretty regularly,” Miller said. “Over the last couple of weeks we've had some decent rains in places but something that's going to help attitudes is when [they] look out there and see green grass.”

Although cattle ranchers are optimistic about what the rainy weather might mean for their herds, Miller said they are cautious about not getting their hopes up too high because of Mother Nature’s unpredictability. When droughts get particularly difficult, stockyards are filled with undersized steer that have not had enough feed to grow to their full potential.

Counter-intuitively, Miller said the sign of a healthy cattle industry is when stockyards are not full of cattle being sold and bought for a time. When feed supply is robust, ranchers tend to keep their herds growing for as long as possible to increase their value.

“That's telling us that there's grass out in the country, and [ranchers] are willing to hang on to them because the market is working,” he said. “Because we're not seeing animals go to the auction market at this point— that tells me that ranchers feel pretty confident that Mother Nature is going to provide enough rainfall for them.”

Merchant said areas of low pressure in the southeast Pacific Ocean might be a hint that wetter El Niño weather conditions are poised to bring more moisture toward Lubbock. This in tandem with the Bermuda high, a system of high pressure that tends to push away moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, means that “we're really looking at good rainfall generally around our area,” he said.

“I would say that the forecast is definitely in our favor to start maybe shifting out of the severe drought to extreme drought as we go through the summer with the El Niño forming,” Merchant said. “Our best period of no drought happens to coincide with the last extended period of El Niño, which was in 2015.”