Winter storm offers few silver linings
Source: AgriLife Today | Feb. 24, 2021
So far, there are few silver linings related to the winter storm system that brought historically low temperatures and a mix of precipitation throughout Texas, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.
As damage assessments begin around the state, AgriLife Extension specialists said the positive impacts of the weeklong arctic front were minimal for Texas agriculture. They said snow and ice helped topsoil moisture levels a little and likely insulated some crops from severe damage. And, the cold temperatures may also have had an impact on early emerging generations of insect pests.
John Nielsen-Gammon, Ph.D., Texas state climatologist, Bryan-College Station, said the February arctic front was one of only two winter storms going back to the first weather records in 1881 with similar snowfall totals and low temperatures for all 254 counties.
“From an ag perspective, the extent of the cold temperatures was most relevant, and based upon 26 weather stations in and around major cities, it was a historically cold storm,” he said. “As far as precipitation and helping drought conditions in several parts of the state, snow doesn’t amount to much when compared to rainfall. But the combination of historically low temperatures and significant snow is a rarity in recorded history, and only comparable to an event in 1949.”
Winter storm for the record books
Nielsen-Gammon said the average minimum temperature around the state was 8 degrees on Feb. 15, making it the 10th coldest on record and coldest since 1989. The winter storm delivered the coldest temperatures on record for two major recording stations – Longview and Tyler, at -5 degrees and -6 degrees, respectively. The previous lows in those locations were -3 degrees and -4 degrees, respectively, set in 1930.
In general, most areas around the state reached colder temperatures in 1989, which is the second coldest event on record and caused severe agriculture damage, especially to the state’s citrus crops in the Rio Grande Valley. Damage is still expected as temperatures for the weeklong storm averaged 26.4 degrees in South Texas and along the Gulf Coast. By comparison, the 1989 temperature average was just above 21 degrees.
Nielsen-Gammon said snowfall totals were very preliminary, but that most of the state received measurable amounts.
Reagan Noland, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agronomist, San Angelo, said his location reported 10.1 inches of snowfall, but said it will have minimal positive impact on soil moisture levels.
“Snow is a good form of precipitation as it doesn’t create much runoff and soaks into the soil, and can actually insulate the plants from damaging temperatures,” he said. “But the disappointing thing about this snow is it doesn’t represent an appreciable contribution to soil moisture. The 10 inches of snow was marked as only 0.28 of an inch of actual water.”
Not much good news
Jourdan Bell, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agronomist, Amarillo, said the precipitation value from snow is not equivalent to the same depth of rainfall, and moisture varies with snowfall events. Dry snow was widely reported during the recent arctic front. The two snow events in the Panhandle during the week delivered 0.26 of an inch of moisture according to official measurements in Bushland.
Despite snow’s failure to deliver needed moisture to areas like San Angelo and the Panhandle, where soil moisture levels have been at or near drought level and declining for months, Bell said the snow protected winter wheat fields from low temperatures.
“We are seven days past subzero temperatures, so we may start seeing some evidence of damage, but we are currently only seeing leaf burn,” she said. “Even though the snow doesn’t represent significant moisture, it still provided a blanket to help protect the wheat from extreme temperatures.”
Noland agreed that the snow likely helped insulate winter wheat and other small grains or winter forages from severe freeze, and that any amount of moisture will help growers in his region, especially as cotton planting approaches. But spring rains will be necessary for dryland acres to survive and produce.
In the Rio Grande Valley, cold temperatures damaged orange and grapefruit production and trees, said Juan Enciso, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Research irrigation engineer, Weslaco. Luckily around 80% of oranges and almost 70% of grapefruit were harvested before temperatures dipped into the danger zone.
Enciso was heading to the field to assess the severity of crop damages and said any positives from the storm were hard to measure.
“The moisture impact will be minimal, and about the only silver lining I can think of is that it may have killed some insect pests,” he said. “There’s just not much good news that I see coming from this winter storm.”
AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:
Single-digit and negative temperatures created havoc for livestock producers. Despite producers’ best efforts, most agriculture wells froze, and cattle and livestock operations without tanks were forced to find and haul water. Those with tanks were chipping through a layer of ice at least twice daily so livestock could drink. Many beef, sheep and goat producers were calving, kidding and lambing when the front arrived. There was no accurate accounting of losses at this time, but losses were expected. It was very difficult to keep equipment running. Livestock were in fair condition. Producers expected near complete loss of oats, and substantial losses on other small grains. One earlier-planted winter wheat field showed signs of frosted tillers. Plants were expected to recover as growing points were likely protected by snow cover before cold temperatures caused damage. Exposed ridges in other fields exhibited more crop injury and frosted tillers. The most common crop injury was to oats, which showed substantial chlorosis with 30% or more frosted tops, and likely was expected to have some whole plant injury and require green-up. Topsoil moisture was adequate to saturated. Most fields were ready to plant once it warms up. Heavy damage to tropical foliage landscapes was noted. More than half the district reported poor pasture and rangeland conditions.
Temperatures dropped to -6, and wind chills reached -20 in places. Some areas received up to 12 inches of snow. Cattle and livestock fared reasonably well in general, as producers provided plenty of hay and protein. Watering was a challenge, and producers were breaking ice frequently. Much of the ice was about 4 inches thick each day. The damage to winter wheat will be assessed in the coming weeks.
The area experienced five consecutive days of ice, sleet, snow and temperatures in the teens and 20s. Agriculture water systems and equipment suffered significant damage. Weather conditions made it difficult to feed cattle when diesel tractors would not start. Livestock producers scrambled to feed and care for animals. Power outages created water issues for livestock due to water wells being offline or frozen. Most ponds, tanks and troughs were frozen over. Livestock producers were feeding hay and supplemental feed, and finding additional rations needed was a challenge. Feed stores were short on inventory, and some that had protein and hay were forced to limit individual purchases. No significant livestock losses were reported, but all animals were negatively impacted by the arctic front, and some newborn calves died. Oats, ryegrass and fruit trees that broke dormancy early froze. Emerged corn will require replanting. No fieldwork was accomplished during the storm, but producers were busy preparing beds and applying fertilizer and controlling weeds. Corn planting was expected to resume with good soil moisture and temperatures. Sorghum plantings were expected to follow.
As much as 12 inches of snow and ice fell across the district. Producers reported the loss of calves, goats, sheep and chicks. Nurseries and greenhouses suffered tremendous losses as well. Damage to structures and farm equipment was reported by many producers. Cool-season forages took a big hit. Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to poor. Subsoil and topsoil conditions were adequate to surplus.
The arctic front was very hard on livestock and feed supplies, but the snow represented some moisture. Cattle were in decent condition. Producers were preparing for planting.
Temperatures were as low as -13 degrees with 8-12 inches of snow. Soil moisture conditions were short to very short. Pasture and rangeland conditions were poor to very poor. Winter wheat was in fair to poor condition, and oat condition was fair. Beef cattle producers struggled to feed livestock and maintain water supplies during the extreme cold. Some cow-calf producers reported losing calves born during this event, but most operations were prepared and managed well. Stocker cattle gains on wheat were at a standstill, but compensatory gains were expected as temperatures warmed.
Topsoil moisture throughout the district was adequate to surplus. Winter storms delivered 8-12 inches of snow. Everything was covered in snow or ice for three days. Bitter cold forced producers to feed and get water to livestock. Feed stores were running out of hay and feed. Tanks froze over and livestock were lost as they ventured onto frozen water sources. Assessment of crop losses was underway. The soil was saturated, and many areas were standing in water. The forecast called for sunshine and warmer temperatures, which should help winter wheat recuperate from the harsh temperatures.
Temperatures averaged highs in the upper 60s to lows in the negative single digits. Precipitation in the form of rain, sleet and snow were reported. Rain averaged less than 0.5 inch, and snow accumulation measured between 1-8 inches. Homeowners and producers reported damage from busted pipes and heavy snow fall. Livestock had to haul water and feed and increased hay and protein rations. Beef cattle and goat producers reported a few newborn losses and premature births. Cattle were still in overall good condition. Winter wheat and oat conditions were average to poor. Wheat does not appear to have suffered any winter kill, but the full effects will not be known for another week or so. Vegetable producers reported frozen crops. Most pecan trees were hedged, so there was very little to no limb breakage from snow and ice. No fieldwork was done. There was some damage to irrigation systems. In El Paso, preparations for cotton planting continued though acreage was expected to be cut by 30% due to reservoir water levels. Effluent water from the city of El Paso was being used to irrigate some pecan orchards. Cotton acres will be pre-irrigated soon.
Extreme cold weather with ice and snow occurred. Low temperatures were in the -5 to -10 degree range, with highs below freezing for nine consecutive days. Winter wheat conditions declined due to cold weather. Livestock producers reported some animal losses, averaging 5-15 head per producer. There were many broken water lines, and watering issues continued. Rangeland and pasture conditions were mostly fair following the winter storm. Loss assessments continued.
Historic losses were expected following the winter storm. Moisture created sloppy field conditions. Pasture and livestock conditions were poor. Livestock were recovering from severe stress from weeklong snow, ice and freezing rain. Hardin County producers struggled to find hay supplies because bale stocks were damaged, and feed supplies were short because trucks were not running. Producers struggled to get livestock feed as the trucks were not running. Families were struggling without water and/or power, and producers were struggling to supply water to livestock due to frozen or broken pipes. Some livestock losses were reported. Rangeland and pasture ratings were fair to very poor with fair ratings being the most common. Soil moisture levels ranged from adequate to surplus with adequate levels being the most common.
Extreme winter weather conditions brought up to 11 inches of snow to parts of the district. Low temperatures in the single digits were reported for multiple days. Rangeland and pasture conditions declined. Producers provided heavy supplementation for livestock and hauled water during the winter storm. The extent of agriculture losses caused by the storm were being assessed. Gillespie County estimated 30% loss of limbs on trees due to ice, a 5% loss of livestock and a 50% loss of free-range black buck and axis herds. Producers were assessing peach losses.
Temperatures reached 16 degrees. Jim Wells County reported 42 hours of below-freezing temperatures. Cold temperatures hurt native and improved vegetation. Rain, light snowfall and wintery mix were reported. Roads were icy, and fields were difficult for producers to access. Maverick County reported 4-8 inches of snow. Soil moisture levels were mostly short to adequate in northern areas and short to very short in southern parts of the district. Wheat and oat damages were expected due to the winter storm. Producers provided heavy rations of supplemental feed during the arctic front. Rangeland and pasture conditions declined dramatically. There was little to no browsing or grazing available for livestock and wildlife. Livestock producers faced hay shortages and water issues. Freezing temperatures impacted early planted corn and sorghum, and replanting will be necessary. No significant cattle or livestock losses were reported. Some home citrus trees experienced total fruit loss, and many homeowners will lose trees. Commercial citrus fruit and vegetable crops were damaged. Willacy County reported damage to all leafy vegetables. Swiss chard, cilantro, onions, turnips, cabbage and more were mostly, if not completely, lost. Citrus trees were reported to be burnt from the freeze, but it is unclear if mature or young trees will make it to the next growing season. About 10% of row crops were planted in February and lost due to freezing temperatures. Losses to the onion crop were expected. Freeze damage and continued drought were expected to put pressure on cattle producers to provide increased supplemental feed until grasses recover.