Each passing day is now bringing more hardship to local farmers and ranchers as the current exceptional drought clutches the ever-drying soils with no rainfall in sight.

Since September of last year, we are some 17 inches of rain below normal. This past week the local U.S. Department of Agriculture County Emergency Board met to review the current grim Ag situation as it relates to crops and livestock.

Currently, about 93 percent of the local cotton acres have failed, 42 percent of grain sorghum along with about 100 percent of the local hay crop. The wheat crop had about 44 percent of the acres fail and 69 percent of corn acres failed.

Livestock continue to be sold due to a lack of available forage and the high cost feed. Bottom line, the losses due this current drought in Nueces County have reached at least $77 million in lost revenue, and without significant rain soon, this number will continue to grow.

This year's drought has affected not only area farmers and ranchers, but also homeowners. Many homeowners are seeing their landscapes wither due to lack of rainfall and summer heat. Some homeowners are seeing their water bills skyrocket and probably not long from now, several communities will ask homeowners to conserve water through water rationing.

Landscape Maintenance Practices Save Water

Proper maintenance is a key principle in reducing irrigation requirements in the landscape. Maintenance practices, such as mulching, mowing and fertilizing greatly impacts the water efficiency of any landscape, as well as the landscape's ability to survive a drought.

Research at Texas A&M University has shown that soil that is not mulched may lose twice as much water to evaporation as mulched soil. Mulch is a layer of material covering the soil surface around plants. Mulches can be organic materials, such as shredded bark, compost and wood chips; or inorganic materials, such as lava rock, limestone and woven plastic.

Use mulch wherever possible. Good mulch preserves soil moisture, prevents soil compaction, keeps soil temperatures more moderate and reduces weed populations. In case weeds do get a start, they are much easier to pull if mulch has been used.

Organic mulches will decompose and sometimes wash away, so make checks regularly and replacements when necessary. In addition to mulching, other maintenance practices help save water in the landscape.

Raising the mowing height on turf grasses helps lawns survive drought conditions. For example, raise the mowing height on St. Augustine grass to three to four inches during drought. The typical mowing height is about two inches.

Another maintenance practice that adds to the efficient use of water by plants is proper fertilization. Applying fertilizer to the lawn at the proper time and in the proper amount can save time, effort and money through reduced mowing and watering. Fertilizers can also be a major source of pollution of streams and groundwater if excessive amounts are applied.

Fertilize the lawn once in spring and again in fall to produce a beautiful turf without excess growth that demands frequent watering. Use a slow-release form of nitrogen in spring and a quick release form in fall. Apply only one pound of actual nitrogen fertilizer per 1,000 square feet of lawn at one time. By using this fertilizer schedule, no other fertilizer is needed for most shrubs and trees in the lawn area.

Other cultural practices that add to the efficient use of water by plants are periodic checks of the irrigation system, properly timed insect and disease control and elimination of water demanding weeds.

Probably the most important concept in landscape water conservation is proper watering. Knowing when to water, and for how long, is fundamental to maintaining a quality landscape that is water efficient. Newly planted trees and shrubs will need more frequent watering from the planting time until they are well-rooted.

During this establishment period, plants can be gradually weaned to a smaller amount of water. Proper weaning develops deep roots and makes plants drought enduring.

Of the tremendous amounts of water applied to lawns and gardens, much of it is never absorbed by the plants and put to use. Some water is lost to runoff by being applied faster than the soil can absorb it, and some water evaporates from exposed, unmulched soil before the plant can use it.

Yet the greatest waste of water is when too much is applied too often. More plants are killed by too much water than by too little.

Most lawns receive twice as much water as they require for a healthy appearance. It is best to not water by the calendar, for example, once a week. It is better to water when the plant needs watering. Most gardeners can readily recognize lawn stresses due to lack of water, such as wilting and yellowing. The key to watering lawns is to apply the water as infrequently as possible, yet thoroughly.

As with lawns, trees and shrubs should be watered as infrequently as possible, yet thoroughly. Most established trees and shrubs will benefit from a twice a month thorough watering during the growing season in the absence of adequate rain. Normal lawn watering is not a substitute for thorough tree and shrub watering.

Jeffrey Stapper is the Agricultural and Natural Resources Agent for Nueces County. Readers may contact him at 767-5217.