Milam drought woes continue
County Agent Jon Gersbach has a ready answer whenever anyone starts talking about “all the trees we lost in the 2011-12 drought.”
“I say we also lost them in 2006,” Gersbach said. “And 2008. And 2004. And for about the last 15 years. Because this is a trend, not something that happened in one or two years.”
Dead and dying trees are one of the most visible signs of the drought which has hit most of Texas hard over the past two years.
During the past year, crews in all four Milam County road precincts have been busy dealing with dead limbs, and in some cases entire trees, falling onto county roads and rights-of-way.
IMMOBILE—Gersbach noted that trees are particularly good indicators of long-term droughts for obvious reasons.
“A tree can’t pick up and move to another location, or ‘change crops’,” he said. “It gets the effects year by year. When you see the problems we’ve had in Milam County it didn’t happen in one or two years. I call what’s happened in the past couple of years just the last stroke.”
“People think an oak tree ought to last forever,” Gersbach said. “Some types will last an awfully long time. But our native post oaks had been used to getting 30 to 35 inches of rain a year. And that’s just not happening much any more.”
Rainfall stats bear out Gersbach’s point.
Weather records have been kept in Rockdale for 88 years and the average annual rainfall is 33.07 inches.
But over the past 10 years that average has dropped to 27.5 inches, a loss of almost 6 inches annually.
And in some years the precipitation total has been far lower— 21.75 in 2011, 15.09 in 2008.
GROWING SEASON— Crops, of course, are a different matter than trees but even the rainfall statistics mask the magnitude of the task facing Milam farmers.
“It’s not always how much rain you get, but when you get it,” Gersbach said. “We have not gotten adequate rainfall in growing season in 13 of the last 15 years.”
“Even years when the statistics show we’ve gotten adequate rain it’s come in October-November, then again in January-February and then it hardly rains at all for eight months,” he said.
That having been said, though, the year just past turned out better than expected for Milam farmers, after the crop disaster that was 2011.
More than 14 inches of rain fell in February and March, but a 4-inch rainfall in usually dry July turned out to be the saver, an unexpected blessing especially for cotton growers.
“It just came at the perfect time, exactly when they needed it,” Gersbach said.
Overall, considering the plummeting yields in 2011, Milam’s other crops, mostly corn and milo, didn’t do badly last year.
“From what they all thought we were looking at this time last year, I think the growers will take it (the 2012 yields),” he said.
Corn will continue to be the county’s No. 1 crop for some time to come, Gersbach predicted. “There’s just so many more ways you can use corn,” he said. “I think there will be more milo this year, too.”
Cotton, once the undisputed king crop in Central Texas, still isn’t back to the levels of the recent past.
“A few years back we had 12,000 acres in cotton in Milam County,” Gersbach said. “It came down to about 4,000 acres but has been increasing again. I think we’ll have about 5,500 acres this year.”
Planting time is mid-February through March, he said.
CATTLE—No part of Texas agriculture was hurt more by the 2011 drought than cattle.
At this time last year there had been massive sell-offs and Texas’s cow herd was at its lowest level in 50 years.
And at the end of January, 2013?
“I know people who have sold off,” Gersbach said. “I know some who pre-managed well and have bought back in.”
What’s the overall bottom line as the 2013 plant-and-grow cycle looms?
“We may have gotten some rains, and they’re certainly welcome,” Gersbach. “But the drought isn’t over. We’re a long way from where we need to be.”