2011 sees records set, broken
Wildfires consumed more than 3 million acres in Texas in 2011.
For the third time in four years, Texas farmers and ranchers faced yet another drought, this on the heels of a bumper crop in 2010. With a very strong La Niña pattern in the Pacific, the period from October 2010 until May 31, 2011, soon became the driest eight-month period on record. The 2011 dry spell, according to State Climatologist Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, is the “most severe one-year drought on record.” The National Weather Service recorded it as the second-worst drought in Texas history. But more records were soon broken.
The year also will be remembered for the thousands of acres burned in wildfires and skyrocketing ag commodity prices.
Freezer burn to sunburn
Mother Nature did not cooperate with the 50th anniversary of the Old Chisholm Trail Drivers during their annual trail ride, when 136 riders began the “big ride” from Cuero for the 100-mile trip to San Antonio. By Feb. 1, an arctic air mass brought four consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures to the region. When the group reached China Grove, only 21 riders, one wagon, and the sound truck remained to finish the ride to San Antonio. They made it before Mother Nature delivered ice and snow across the area Feb. 4.
By March, 64 percent of the state was suffering drought conditions, with 98 percent of the state listed as abnormally dry. At that time, wildfires plagued many areas of Texas. By June, the Texas Department of Agriculture started “Operation New Fences” to assist ranchers who lost more than 4,000 miles of fences to wildfires. More than 3 million acres burned, with 233 counties under a burn ban, including Wilson County.
Statewide, about 5,500 miles of fence and 2.6 million acres of pasture were lost to fires as of July 8. In Bastrop, more than 100,000 acres of rangeland and about 500 homes were destroyed by wildfires.
By the end of June, 213 Texas counties were designated as natural disaster areas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, due to the continuing drought. The 2011 drought blazed into Texas’ 116-year-old record books. June was the warmest June in history, and the fourth-warmest month ever. By July, another record was set for the driest period ever, from October 2010 to July 2011.
The number of 100-degree days also challenged the all-time record, but fell short. On Aug. 28 at 5:30 p.m., Stinson Field in San Antonio recorded the record high for the state at 113 degrees Fahrenheit.
The San Antonio Water System implemented Stage II restrictions in May. This was followed by the S.S. Water Supply Corp. setting restrictions in June.
Drought drove prices, losses
In May, a Farm Service Agency’s loss assessment report recorded Wilson County losing an estimated $24 million in cool-season grasses on 6,000 acres in the county, comprising 3,000 farms.
While farmers and ranchers turned to grain to supplement the hay fed to cattle, hay and grain prices crept up. Sorghum was listed at $11.40 per 100 pounds, doubled from the year before. Corn, at $7.05 per bushel, also doubled in price. Cattlemen faced cottonseed prices that nearly doubled from $200 per ton to more than $390 per ton in October.
As the supply of hay decreased, ranchers soon were shipping hay from other states to keep their herds. Some elected to sell out. Ranchers also turned to culling into the “heart of herds” -- the cows and bulls. Auction barns across the state, including Nixon Livestock, reported that the number of breeding stock doubled and tripled in numbers, compared to the year prior. The number of cows ranged from 492 per sale to a high of 942 per sale during August.
By mid-August, Texas agricultural drought losses reached a record $5.2 billion, with livestock accounting for more than $2 billion.
Prices for cattle reached unprecedented highs, with fed cattle listed at $127 per hundredweight in early November. Two months prior, cattle prices were $113 per hundredweight.
In November, the price for peanuts was as high as $1,200 per ton, with retail prices anticipated to increase by 40 percent. Severe drought in Texas and the Southeast, poor market prices at planting, and low supply from the previous year all contributed.
La Niña to continue?
A 50-percent chance of the La Niña weather pattern remaining for yet another year was being reported by fall.
We are “dealing with history,” Telvent DTN chief ag meteorologist Bryce Anderson said during a Sept. 7 DTN/The Progressive webinar. He said the 2010-11 La Niña pattern was the strongest since 1988-89. Anderson reported the current drought included the central Corn Belt region and the Southeast, continuing into the Southern Plains and Texas. Houston was 24 inches short of rainfall for the calendar year. The driest regions in the country include the Southern Plains, eastward to the Delta area, and the deep South.
During the Sept. 16-18 weekend, the Wilson County area started to receive rainfall, but it was not enough.
In October, Texas AgriLife reporters said the state remained in one stage of drought or another, with more than 70 percent under severe to exceptional drought conditions, based on data from the U.S. drought monitor.
In November, the Texas AgriLife Extension district personnel reported “East Texas, North Texas, Central Texas, and the Rolling Plains were the main beneficiaries, with the Coastal Bend, South Texas, and Far West Texas regions being largely passed over” by the much-needed rain.
With the drought conditions, rabies was a problem state health officials watched closely.
In late August, 14 horses, five cows, two goats, and one donkey had tested positive for rabies in Texas. This surpassed 2004 and 2006, when 12 cases of equine rabies were confirmed each year, with 13 cases of cattle rabies recorded in 2004.
In October, two rabies cases -- a kitten and a skunk -- were confirmed in the Floresville city limits, for a total of four cases for the county. In Region 8, covering Wilson and 27 other South Texas counties, 50 rabies cases were confirmed.
Ending the year
As the year came to an end, the South Texas area received much-needed rains, but remained approximately 15 inches short for the year.
Will the La Niña weather pattern continue into 2012? Farmers and ranchers are hoping the predictions of continued drought are wrong, as they regroup and continue their agricultural pursuits. All agree 2011 was a year for the record books.