A winter cabbage field surrounded by soggy citrus orchards shows plentiful rainfall. Cotton and sugarcane crops are at risk if cold, wet conditions persist.
A winter cabbage field surrounded by soggy citrus orchards shows plentiful rainfall. Cotton and sugarcane crops are at risk if cold, wet conditions persist.

For the second year in a row, cold wet weather is hampering the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s billion dollar agricultural industry, only this year the prolonged conditions are posing a much more serious threat, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.

Cotton and sugarcane, two of the area’s most lucrative crops, are currently among those most threatened, according Brad Cowan, AgriLife Extension agent in Hidalgo County.

“Our row crops are getting to the point where this weather is really going to cause our growers the loss of major dollars if it doesn’t turn around here pretty quickly,” Cowan said. “Our cotton growers are the ones who need some drying-out weather really fast.”

Without the ability to get into soggy fields to plant their 2015 crop soon, cotton growers face two major challenges: harvesting before the state-mandated Sept. 1 deadline and meeting planting deadlines for adequate crop insurance, Cowan said.

“If cotton isn’t planted soon, we run up against deadlines where it won’t be harvested in time for the boll weevil to be managed at the end of the crop,” he said. “The other concern is being able to insure the crop properly. It’s really a serious time for our cotton guys to hopefully get some warmer and dryer weather in here so we can get this crop into the ground.”

Cowan said he and others will appeal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency, which manages the federal crop insurance program, for an extension of the planting deadline.

While rain is usually a welcome respite for agriculture, too much of a good thing can be bad, especially when coupled with cold weather, Cowan said.

“We have been wet, wet, wet,” he said. “And what’s made it bad is that it’s been both wet and cold. Either, at the wrong time, is bad; but together, it’s serious business.”

While wet weather keeps growers out of their fields, colder than normal soil temperatures don’t allow seeds to germinate and grow properly.

“Corn and soybeans can take cold, but other row crops like cotton and grain need warm soil temperatures here as early as January,” Cowan said. “That’s why corn does so well in Minnesota and other cold climates.”

Sugarcane is under threat of losing significant yields if fields don’t dry up sufficiently for mechanized harvesters to take the ratoon crop to the state’s only sugarmill, in Monte Alto, for processing.

“Our sugarcane harvest is shut down at the moment, and they really need to get back in there and get that crop out,” Cowan said. “There have also been growers trying to get sugarcane planted since September, so we’re behind in all of that too.”

Unplanted and late-harvested sugarcane could result in drastic yield losses, he said.

“Sugarcane will get harvested eventually, but it will be late, which will be lots of lost dollars to growers and the economy. We’d like to get the entire crop into the mill by the first of April, but at this rate it will likely be well into the summer before that happens.”

The cold, wet weather conditions have also caused problems for the area’s winter vegetable crops,Cowan said. Especially hard hit are onions, which prefer hot, dry weather.

Beginning in September, the four-county Lower Rio Grande Valley area has seen unusually high rainfall amounts and cooler than normal temperatures, according to a summary released by the National Weather Service in Brownsville.

Citing an El Niño weather pattern that officially gained footing at the end of February, the report notes that March rains have added to already exceptionally moist conditions, ensuring no return to drought conditions anytime soon.

“The expectation for the current weather pattern to continue through spring ensures that drought has no chance to become established through May, and ensures no spring wildfire season for the lower and mid-Valley and only minimal opportunity for the Rio Grande Plains of Starr, Jim Hogg and Zapata counties,” the report states.

The report also forecasts that the subtropical jet, a feature common to El Niño, suggests lower-than-normal temperatures through late March and a continued threat for more showers and eventually thunderstorms.

But the cool wet weather is not all bad news, Cowan said.

“Rain is always good for our soil conditions and helps avoid depletion of our reservoirs at Amistad and Falcon dams,” he said. “But it’s also great news for beef cattle and growing pastures here in South Texas.

“Corn and soybeans are off to a good start, though we didn’t plant as much as we would have liked. Sesame planting can wait for warmer weather, and it’s not too late to plant. And more will be planted, pending dryer field conditions.”

Cowan said lighter, sandy soil fields can dry out sufficiently for cotton planters in as little as two days of warm, sunny weather, while heavier clay soils require a week to 10 days.