When it comes to soil moisture, Texas agriculture is divided into “haves” and “have-nots.”

The silhouette of an irrigation pivot with the sunset in the background.
Many farmers with irrigation have been watering planted crops to help seed germination and prewatering fields to improve soil moisture before planting. Dryland farmers are at the mercy of Mother Nature. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agronomists Calvin Trostle, Ph.D., in Lubbock, and Ronnie Schnell, Ph.D., in Bryan-College Station, said the soil moisture conditions have changed dramatically for parts of the state, while other parts continue to deal with various levels of drought.

East Texas and far West Texas, including El Paso County, are faring well and are considered out of the drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Some parts, especially large swaths of Central Texas and the Panhandle, are mired in extreme, or D3, to exceptional, or D4, drought levels, according to the drought monitor. D3 drought levels indicate major crop and pasture losses as well as widespread water shortages and restrictions. D4 levels indicate exceptional widespread crop and pasture loss, and water shortages in reservoirs and wells at emergency stages.

Trostle said there are stark differences around the Panhandle, which range from moderate to exceptional drought levels. But even within the drought monitor’s picture of Texas’ water and soil moisture conditions, the local reality may be as bad or better than expected.

“There is a difference between the dark red versus red, but there are always the possibilities that local conditions could be very different,” he said. “If a producer gets 3 inches of rain over a few weeks, they are in a much different situation than what the map shows. We don’t get into or out of droughts quickly, but soil moisture is a big factor in the drought monitor and what growers are monitoring when planning their crop decisions.”

Soil moisture defined by rainfall deficits or deluge

Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, Ph.D., Bryan-College Station, said dry parts of the state have been experiencing below-normal rainfall and drought conditions for years. As a result, conditions across the state reflect the long- and short-term weather patterns.

The state is no longer stuck in a La Niña pattern, which means Texas should expect normal chances for rain. La Niña delivers above-normal temperatures and below-normal rainfall for most of the state.

But Nielsen-Gammon said many areas are so deep in drought that it will take time and multiple rain events to return to normalcy. Over the past 90 days, most of the western half of Texas has received 50% of its normal rainfall while parts of deep East Texas have received 150% of their normal rainfall.

“East Texas normally gets a lot more precipitation in winter anyway, but that pattern was exaggerated this winter,” he said. “There is really no dividing line to the drought. Most of it has been going on for years, and what we see around the state reflects the long-term rainfall deficit versus short-term rainfall that might improve the situation some.”

Nielsen-Gammon said there is a decent chance for precipitation in drier areas of the state over the coming weekend.   

Soil moisture: Catch it. Keep it. Reap it.

Trostle and Schnell are hopeful rainfall will materialize in their respective regions. Brazos County and surrounding counties are not experiencing drought, according to the monitor, but Schnell said the topsoil needs moisture after a dry spell followed heavy rains in December and January.

“We have good deep moisture, but if the current dry spell moves into another week, it could impact sorghum plantings,” he said. “We caught really good rains over winter, but it’s been dry for weeks now, and the topsoil is dried out.”

Schnell said most corn plantings in southern and Central Texas started in late February due to warmer-than-normal soil temperatures, and that seeds were planted deeper in some fields to reach enough moisture to get the crop started. 

Trostle said some farmers might like clean, tilled fields, but that goes against principles he recommends to operations in drier areas or dealing with drier-than-normal conditions.

His three-phrase rule of thumb for rainfall is “Catch it. Keep it. Reap it.”

Catching and keeping moisture represents added crop value, Trostle said. For example, in cotton, 1 inch of incremental water equals about 60 pounds of fiber yield per acre, or around $48-$50 per acre with current prices.  

“Do you have stubble or a cover crop that can catch that rainfall and slow down the water enough to soak in and prevent it from running off the field?” he said. “Keeping it starts with minimizing tillage because you can lose half an inch of rainfall by disturbing the soil. That could be $25 of cotton per acre. Reaping it is just taking advantage of the moisture and doing everything possible to maximize its impact on your yield.”

AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

A map of the 12 Texas A&M AgriLife Extension districts.
A map of the 12 Texas A&M AgriLife Extension districts.


Dry conditions persisted in some areas while most areas received scattered rains ranging from trace amounts to 1.5 inches. Soil moisture levels were short to adequate. Additional moisture was still needed to fill stock tanks. Heavy fog interrupted some fieldwork. Temperatures were changing from warm to cool daily, and there were concerns about cooler temperatures in the forecast. Pastures were improving and starting to green up, with a notable emergence of broadleaf weeds. Warm-season grasses were emerging as temperatures warmed. Producers began testing soil nutrient levels to determine fertilizer needs. Coastal fields were breaking dormancy with warming soil temperatures. Ornamental and shade trees started to bud. Trees stressed by drought have yet to break bud and bloom. Winter wheat looked good, and grain wheat was looking better than it has in two years. Corn silage planting was past the halfway point but slowed due to intermittent rains. Growers were expecting three to four good days of planting before the next cold front brings additional rain. Plantings should be very close to completion before the rains. Cattle were turned out into oat fields, and supplemental feeding continued. Pasture and rangeland conditions were poor to fair, and livestock conditions were fair.


Many areas received scattered heavy rains that delivered up to 4 inches, while other areas received only trace amounts. Most areas reported needing more rain. Wheat conditions were poor to excellent. Most stocker cattle remained on wheat fields and other winter forage annuals, with good grazing reported in most areas. Supplemental feeding of cattle continued in many areas. Cattle looked “rough,” according to one report and fair to good in most areas. Water levels in tanks were improving. Rangeland and pasture conditions should improve following rains. Winter wheat received much-needed moisture. Farmers started to list wheat fields to prepare them for cotton. Corn and sorghum fields were ready to plant. Fruit trees were starting to bloom.


Planters were active amid warmer, drier conditions. Lack of soil moisture was becoming a problem for crop fields and pastures after starting the year in great shape. Soil moisture levels declined quickly with the 80-plus-degree sunny days and moderate wind. Most cotton producers were waiting for moisture to plant. Most corn planting was complete, and fields were emerging. Some fields were showing good stands and were reaching the V3 and V5 growth stages. Sorghum plantings were completed in most areas. Concerns regarding a lack of moisture were delaying sorghum planting in some areas. Rice planting continued and was advancing quickly. Hay continued to be in high demand and in short supply. Cattle prices remained steady to above average at most markets, while one county had historically high cattle prices.


Recent rainfall improved growing conditions in many areas. Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to good. Subsoil and topsoil conditions were adequate. Moisture and warmer temperatures caused warm-season grasses to emerge. Spring vegetable planting began. Cattle markets improved. Livestock were fair to good depending on supplemental rations, pasture management and hay quality fed over the winter. 


A few counties in the southwestern part of the district received 0.25-1 inch of rain, but overall, soil moisture was very short to short. Winter wheat was in poor to fair condition. Pasture and rangeland conditions were very poor to poor.


The district needed moisture. Topsoil and subsoil moisture levels were very short to short. Producers continued field preparations, including fertilizer, manure and compost applications. Mild weather and wind negatively impacted soil moisture. Producers were wondering what to plant due to the lack of moisture and how crops might progress without moisture. Winter wheat was in very poor to fair condition. Small grains should be jointing but were not, which likely means low yields. It could also mean wheat may not get tall enough to harvest. Irrigation was in full swing for wheat and pre-watering for summer crops. Pasture and rangeland conditions were very poor to poor. Spring rangeland and small grain forages were declining sooner than normal. Cattle were being pulled off the limited pasture available and hauled to feed yards or sale barns.


Pasture and rangeland were fair to good. Both subsoil and topsoil moisture were adequate to surplus for most counties. Rainfall amounts ranged from 2-5 inches. Temperatures cooled across the district. Winter wheat and oats were doing well and looked better after receiving rain. Spring pastures were starting to show enough growth to allow grazing for cattle. Stock tanks and ponds were full. A few acres of corn were planted in the southern half of the district. Hay fields were in good shape. Hessian flies were reported in some wheat fields. Livestock were in good condition.


Warmer temperatures were prevalent across most counties. Daytime temperatures reached the upper 70s with overnight lows in the 40s-50s. Counties in southeastern parts of the district experienced scattered thunderstorms with occasional drizzled rainfall for three days. The moisture should improve soil moisture levels and rangeland and pasture conditions. The rest of the district experienced a higher dewpoint, but no measurable rainfall was reported. A few windy days were reported. Topsoil and subsoil moisture levels were very short to adequate, though most areas were short on moisture. Most producers were preparing fields and drip irrigation lines for planting. Pre-irrigation continued for cotton fields in the Rio Grande Valley. Some alfalfa was planted. Most pecan orchards around El Paso were being irrigated with effluent water from the city while others owners used private wells or had not irrigated. Mesquite and trees in town were starting to bloom. Spring weeds were emerging. Reports indicate that snowpacks in Colorado and New Mexico may not be enough to bring water levels out of drought. Pasture and rangeland conditions were very poor to fair, and supplemental livestock feeding continued. Livestock were in fair condition. Brush was becoming a problem for ranchers. Buzzard sightings were up. Lambing was finishing, and kidding should end soon. 


Days were unseasonably warm and windy, with drizzly rains that delivered trace amounts of moisture. Topsoil moisture was declining. All areas needed rainfall. Soil moisture was good. Warm weather has trees budding out and putting on leaves. Pecan trees were beginning to bud out but had not broken bud yet. Forbs were emerging, and small grain crops were not growing in some areas and growing rapidly in other areas. Rangelands were trying to recover, but the lack of moisture was holding them back. Pastures were dry and producing very little grazing. Irrigated and early planted wheat looked good. Dryland wheat needed rain soon to have any chance of making decent yields. Corn planting was done, and sorghum planting started. Field preparations continued for cotton and haygrazer. Producers were spraying hay fields. Supplemental feeding of livestock decreased some due to cool-season weed growth. Stock tanks needed some runoff water. Cows were calving. The cattle market was very active, with good demand and the futures board continuing to move higher. Feeder cattle and stocker heifer prices were up $3-$5 per hundredweight. Stocker steers were $3-$4 higher per hundredweight.


Fields continued to dry with no rain and mild temperatures. Soil moisture levels were adequate to surplus. Many producers were working on fields for rice planting in the next few weeks. Some early rice planting began. Spring green-up was underway in most areas, but moisture was becoming a concern in some parts of the district. Calf prices were spurred higher by optimism among ranchers, but some still worried about dry summer conditions. Rangeland and pasture conditions were poor to excellent.


A few spotty rains were reported. Temperatures were above average, and wind gusts up to 60 mph were reported. Soil moisture levels were declining in most areas, but winter and early spring showers improved rangeland and pasture conditions. Rangelands were trying to green up. Spring flowers were blooming. Planted corn germinated, and some fields were growing into the two-leaf stage. Sorghum fields were also planted. Livestock markets were steady to high.


Temperatures were abnormally warm with windy conditions. Wheat and oat crops continued to progress under irrigation and will begin to head soon. Corn and sorghum planting continued, with most corn acres planted already with slow germination reported. Cotton planting was underway, with some fields already emerging. Some cotton and sorghum plantings were delayed as producers waited for rain, but other cotton and corn fields were being dry planted. Pasture and rangeland conditions continued to improve, but forage availability was poor, and livestock supplemental feeding continued. Farmers with irrigation were watering crops. Citrus, sugarcane, onion and cool-season vegetable harvests continued. Citrus farmers were irrigating trees where water was available, and some will be harvesting their late-season oranges soon.  

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