COLLEGE STATION — From Feb. 21 through Feb. 28, the Texas Forest Service responded to 63 fires on nearly 140,000 acres — mostly in the Panhandle and Rolling Plains.
Some of the fires were very large. On Feb. 28, the Forest Service reported 30,000 acres and 30 homes were lost in Potter County, north of Amarillo. In Motley County, wildfires burned 40,000 acres, and the entire town of Matador had to be evacuated.
2 minute MP3 audio version of Texas crop, weather for 03-01-2011 [audio:http://agrilifetoday.tamu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/0301crop-weather-AUDIO.mp3|titles=2 minute MP3 audio version of Texas crop, weather for 03-01-2011 ]
Though most of the fires have been in the Panhandle and Southern Plains, the conditions that bred the wildfire — drought, large amounts of dry grass and high winds — were posing similar risks for most of the state, according to Texas AgriLife Extension Service personnel.
For example, in Mitchell County, wildfires north of Colorado City, west of Abilene, burned 7,000 acres. The wildfire started from sparks when high winds — 50 mph or better — jolted electrical power lines together, according to John Senter, AgriLife Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources in Mitchell County. But the situation that bred the fires began with unseasonable rains last November.
“Certainly, when we got rain that time it was welcome,” he said. “Certainly it was good to grow some late-season forage for livestock and provided a boost to late season cotton that really paid off well.”
But since then, the region has been abnormally dry.
“So in essence what those rainfalls did was create a tremendous amount of fuel in our turn-rows, in our native pastures and in our lawns, and that’s what fed the fires Sunday evening,” he said.
Most of the fires in Mitchell County were concentrated north of Colorado City, Senter said. But with the dry conditions and high winds, the fire quickly got out of control, he said.
“In retrospect it would have been good if we hadn’t had those November rains, but then we wouldn’t have had the good cotton and wheat yields,” he said. “Getting rid of those large acreages of dry grass just simply wasn’t feasible.”
Burn bans were in effect in 144 counties as of Feb. 28, according to the Forest Service.
AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:
Central: Dry weather made fields accessible and crop work proceeded at a rapid pace. Farmers were preparing fields for corn and sorghum planting. Others were getting ready for sprigging Bermudagrass. Already established coastal Bermudagrass fields were being fertilized and sprayed for weeds. Warmer weather and sunshine helped oats and wheat recover from the freezes two weeks ago.
Coastal Bend: Warm weather, with little rain meant soil moisture levels were low to inadequate. High winds continued to deplete topsoil moisture. Row-crop producers began planting corn, sorghum and sunflowers. Some producers gambled based on forecasts for warmer-than-normal weather and began to plant cotton early. Winter wheat looked good in most areas. Rangeland and pastures will need moisture soon as the warmer weather causes them to come out of winter dormancy. Livestock producers were supplementing cattle with hay and protein. Livestock ponds were very low in many areas.
East: Some areas received as much as 0.5 inch of rain, but dry soil conditions remained the rule throughout the region. Warmer temperatures and light rains stimulated the growth of ryegrass and other winter forages. Warm-season grasses emerged too. Hay supplies were short as feeding continued. Some producers were still purchasing hay out of the area. Livestock were in fair to good condition, with spring calving ongoing. Farmers were planting vegetables and preparing fields for the planting of summer crops. Feral hogs were active.
Far West: Dry winds and lack of moisture caused wildfires. Producers continued pre-watering in cotton fields prior to planting. Land preparation for cotton, chiles and corn was ongoing. Fall-planted onions were recovering from freeze damage two weeks ago and showed new leaves. Pecan trees remained dormant, and growers began pruning and irrigating orchards. Spring wheat seed that was not at germination stage during the freeze was germinating.
North: The region had warm and cloudy days for most of the reporting period. Soil moisture was mostly adequate. With the drier weather and fields, some small-grains producers were able to apply fertilizer. Small grains and ryegrass looked very good, appearing to have bounced back from the two weeks of extremely cold temperatures with snow and ice. Winter wheat emerged and was in fair to good condition. With the drier weather, cattle producers were able to turn cattle back in on small grains and winter pastures. Livestock was in fair to good condition. Expanded feeding during cold weather drained some livestock producer’s hay stocks, but if there are no more severe storms, they may have enough hay to last out the remainder of the winter. Land preparation for spring-planted crops continued. Rangeland and pastures were in poor to good condition. Feral hog damage greatly increased with the warmer weather.
Panhandle: Days were warm and dry. High winds, with gusts ranging from 50 -70 mph, drove many wildfires out of control. The region remains under a high wildfire danger. Soil moisture was very short to short. Wheat was mostly poor. Rangeland was in very poor to poor condition. Some producers were preparing fields for spring planting. Cattle were in good condition, with producers continuing to supply supplemental feeding.
Rolling Plains: Scattered rain showers fell in some counties, but most of the district remained dry. Higher temperatures, sustained winds and lack of moisture contributed to the increase of wildfires. Fire burned 40,000 acres in Motley County on Feb. 27, and 400 people in Roaring Springs and Matador were evacuated. Fires were also reported in Foard, Jack, Palo Pinto, Parker and Wichita counties. Wheat came out of dormancy but needed rain for the chance to make even average yields. Some producers top-dressed (fertilized) their wheat. Livestock producers were feeding hay and supplements several times a week. Livestock were still in generally fair to good condition. Pastures began to green up. Fruit trees were in the full-bud stage.
South: There was some greening of rangeland and pasture grasses, but extremely dry conditions kept grass growth at a standstill. Soil-moisture levels remained short to very short range throughout the region, except for the southern counties where they were 40 to 75 percent adequate. With warmer temperatures in the 90’s, field activities were very active in some of the eastern counties All of the wheat emerged but was in poor condition. About 70 percent of the potato crop also emerged in that area, and farmers were preparing to plant corn. In the western part of the district, farmers were irrigating corn, cabbage, spinach, wheat and oats because soils were dried out by extremely high winds. Dryland sorghum producers in that area planned to delay spring planting until they get rain. Also in that area, spinach harvesting was very active and onions were progressing well. In the southern parts of the region, producers were busy harvesting freeze-damaged sugarcane as quickly as possible before the crop further deteriorated. Also in that area, growers were busy with vegetable and citrus harvests, and spring plantings. Cattle body-condition scores remained fair to poor, and livestock producers were steadily providing supplemental feed. Ranchers were very concerned about very low or completely dry stock tank water levels.
South Plains: The region remained very dry with numerous wildfires, and burn bans were in effect. High winds — from 50-70 mph — exacerbated the dry conditions and raised the risk of wildfire. Some farmers were applying pre-emergent herbicides and fertilizer. Dryland wheat was either suffering or a complete failure. Pasture and rangeland remained dry, and producers continued to provide supplemental feed to livestock.
Southeast: Warm days caused winter annuals to start regrowing. Ryegrass responded quicker than the clovers. Soil moisture was becoming short. In Brazoria County, producers began planting crops, even early rice, as soil temperatures were in the high 60s. In Liberty County, another week without rain continued to play havoc on pastures and winter wheat, and delayed spring land preparation.
Southwest: Spinach, onion and cabbage crops were slowly recovering from the hard freezes in early February. But the continued dry weather threatened to significantly reduce farm-and-ranch income in 2011. Since Aug. 1, the total cumulative rainfall, as measured in Uvalde, was about 35 percent of the long-term average and the second-driest on record. High winds added insult to injury by increasing the incidence of roadside fires. Wind-blown dust from fields that had been plowed for spring planting created mid-afternoon hazes. Rain will be needed very soon to make dryland crop planting possible. Pastures and rangeland remained in winter dormancy. Forage availability was below average. Ranchers were busy with the calving/lambing/kidding season and continued repairing water pipes that broke when frozen.
West Central: Warm, windy days without rain continued to dry out soils. Burn bans remained in effect in most counties. Some hay fields were being tilled to aerate the soils. Large amounts of damage to wheat and other small-grain crops from the extremely cold temperatures and dry conditions became evident. Very little pasture grass was greening up. Livestock remained in fair condition with ongoing supplemental feeding.