McLennan County will soon enter the extreme drought phase, according to the state climatologist. With crops showing signs of the near-record dry weather, the area’s farmers are already feeling the heat.

One local farmer and rancher was forced to sell half his cattle herd because of tough conditions and a shortage of hay to fill the gap and said cotton crops are the worst he has seen in his 38 years working in the area.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said.

In the past 10 months, since Oct. 1, Waco has gotten 13.26 inches of rain, he said. In his 111 years of records, only 1925 and 1918 were drier.

“For the period starting last fall, this is the third-driest on record for Waco — drier than just about everyone living has ever seen there,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

Three quarters of the state is experiencing drought conditions, and more than a quarter of the state is listed in the severe to exceptional drought phase, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.

McLennan County is in the severe drought stage, but with no rain in sight, the county will likely move up a notch on the drought monitor scale before the end of summer, Nielsen-Gammon said.

County AgriLife Extension agent Shane McLellan said every farm in the area is hurting this season. Corn and sorghum yields were half what they are in a normal year, and cattle ranchers are struggling with water and hay shortages, McLellan said.

The National Weather Service has recorded 9.04 inches of rain at the Waco Regional Airport since Jan. 1, the second-lowest total for the first seven months of any year on record, weather service meteorologist Bianca Villanueva said. Waco’s normal from January through July is 20.11 inches.

But even 2018’s meager total, and the 0.67 inches since June 1, show a rosier picture than reality, McLellan said. Many of the rain showers this year have brought less than a third of an inch at a time.

“That doesn’t do anything,” he said. “When you’re in a dry period like this you need two to three inches at a time, a slow soaking rain, to build up any kind of soil moisture.”

Local cattle rancher Vince Neuhaus had to make a tough decision Wednesday. He sold half of his herd at auction in order to make it through the harsh summer, which has drawn comparisons to another tough summer in 2011.

“In 2011, we sold some of the older cows then too, but we didn’t sell as many because we had a lot more hay,” Neuhaus said. “That is what’s extra bad this year.”

The shortage of hay and green grass led him to cull the herd, he said.

Neuhaus, 75, grew up on a farm in South Texas and has farmed most of his life. He retired three years ago and now leases his 750 acres to another farmer who grows corn and cotton.

Walking down the rows of parched cotton plants Wednesday, Neuhaus said this summer’s yield is likely to be the worst he has ever seen.

“In the 38 years I’ve been involved in farming in this area, this is the worst,” he said. “This is the worst crop, worse than 2011.”

The cotton plants on his land are blooming early and showing stunted growth, he said. The plants should be thigh-height this time of year but are barely hitting his shins.

“This is so weird, looking out here and seeing that cotton plant,” he said looking out the window of his Ford truck as he drove along a field. “We should have green lush plants growing out there and it’s just, uh, that’s one thing about farming. It’s fun to grow a crop, but when you have a year like this it just makes you feel sick.”

Neuhaus and McLellan said bad crops and harsh conditions are a reality for farmers.

“Farmers are an optimistic bunch just because they deal with what Mother Nature gives them,” McLellan said. “… There’s always something challenging production, in America in general, not just here. Farmers are used to dealing with these bad times. It’s just hard when you have a 2011. It’s been just a lot of dry, a lot of average years mixed in there with several bad years.”

Lately, McLellan has received a lot of perplexing calls from concerned residents.

“Everybody seems to want to do something besides water,” he said. “They want to put out iron, or fertilize, do different things for their lawns with this drought. You can’t replace rain. I mean it’s kind of strange some of this stuff people are questioning when all they can do is water.”

Trees have shown leaf loss as they compartmentalize to survive the season, McLellan said.

“A lot of trees are just trying to survive,” he said. “Water. That’s all you can do.”

Nielsen-Gammon said there are signs El Nino conditions will bring wetter weather by October, but like everything weather related, there is no guarantee.

Lauren Dodd has covered education for the Tribune-Herald since May 2018. A native of Beaumont, Dodd attended Rhodes College and joined the Tribune-Herald in 2018. She previously worked as a reporter at the Seguin Gazette and the Killeen Daily Herald.

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