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Winter drought, warm temperatures could lead to shifts in growing seasons

Dryland Winter Wheat
Calvin Trostle
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Calvin Trostle's dryland winter wheat in Lubbock is in rough shape after facing drought conditions and unseasonably warm temperatures.

After an unseasonably warm December and faced with an ongoing drought, agricultural experts say planting times might need to change to balance unpredictable weather.

Calvin Trostle has worked in Agriculture his whole life, so he’s gotten used to the ups and downs the weather can bring.

“I’ve lived in three different states and everybody everywhere always says ‘If you don’t like the weather, stick around, it will change,’” Trostle said. “That applies in Minnesota just like it does here.”

Trostle is an agronomist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Lubbock. The center has been helping farmers for more than 100 years in the Southern High Plains. The booming agricultural region is home to more than 6 million acres of crops, according to the AgriLife Extension Service.

What Trostle hasn’t gotten used to, however, is how the weather can change the course of his work in an instant, including his dryland winter wheat crop.

Trostle’s job includes running research trials. He planted his winter wheat early, in hopes of it getting the moisture it needed. But instead, he now has a mostly bare field.

“If you look at my dryland variety trial at Lubbock, I have nothing,” Trostle explained. “I have some seeds that have germinated, I don’t know if they’re going to emerge. I wouldn’t pay $20 an acre for what I have out there right now.”

Trostle’s winter wheat is just one of many crops around the state that have been affected by the weather. Texas is known for it’s erratic weather patterns, but this year has felt different.

Texas State Climatologist John Neilson-Gammon reported recently that Texas experienced its warmest December on record last year, making it the warmest since 1889. It’s also very dry — the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that about 96 percent of the state was under drought conditions.

There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for the drought, either, and Neilson-Gammon said the warm December days worsened drought conditions.

“Having the high temperatures in December means that whatever moisture there was, was able to evaporate more rapidly,” Neilson-Gammon said. “So that’s a problem right now for winter wheat, it’s a problem for ranchers, and it could well be a problem for farmers with spring crops.”

This isn’t the first time Neilson-Gammon has studied the effects of climate change in Texas. Last year, he released another report where his data showed the number of 100-degree days could double by 2036. The increased temperatures would likely add to the severity of the drought.

The combination could lead to a change in planting times, Neilson-Gammon said.

“In the long run, we’re seeing a shift in the growing season, so that can actually start a bit earlier,” Neilson-Gammon said. “It also means that the growing season ends earlier with the heat of the summer time. So depending on the crop, you really have to be careful about the best time to put it in the ground and unfortunately, you also need moisture to do that.”

The shifts in the weather already have some farmers readjusting their calendars in other regions of Texas. Amy Gallo, the Farm Viability Manger for the Sustainable Food Center in Austin said the farmers she works with are experimenting to see what’s best for them.

“Anecdotally speaking, I see my farmers are responding to warmer trends in weather by planting earlier, planting later, it’s like every year is a new thing all over again,” Gallo said. “Folks are trying to work with what they’ve got.”

Gallo said the temperatures in Austin have been fluctuating all month, and it’s been harsh on their winter vegetables.

“Yesterday in Austin, it was 76 degrees, and this morning, it’s 35,” Gallo explained. “Even crops that are used to being over winter, like our root vegetables and kale, they don’t do well when they’re shifting so wildly between really warm and really cold temperatures.”

Since it’s becoming more unpredictable, Gallo said some of the farmers she works with are trying to find ways to protect their crops.

“A lot of our farmers are investing in what we call season-extending technology,” Gallo said. “So putting in tunnels and greenhouses to make sure they’re a little safer from the wacky weather we’ve been having.”

Back in Lubbock, Trostle doesn’t know if moisture will come in time for winter crops in the region, despite a cold front and a bit of snow.

“We need a large enough rainfall event to connect to the moisture underneath,” he said. “If we get that, then we still might have a poor or mediocre wheat crop.” But Trostle explained that with unseasonable temperatures coupled with the wind, “it dries things out.”

Since his wheat experiment didn’t work out how he hoped, Trostle decided to cut his losses and stop waiting for the rain.

“I ended up not harvesting it,” Trostle said. “We were waiting, hoping that maybe we could, but then the weeds came and it was just a mess. If we could have, the yield would have been in the upper single digits.”

Trostle added, “If any farmer had a field like this, they probably wouldn’t bother harvesting it.”