Freezing temperatures are normal throughout the south-central portion of the U.S., but in mid-February, temperatures plummeted to record lows and did not climb above freezing for days. Estimated damage totals are upwards of $18 billion, according to Karen Clark & Co. Water pipes and other infrastructure dominated the immediate headlines, but there are other lasting effects, especially in agriculture. Many of the long-term ramifications are still unknown until the growing season progresses and crop damages can be further assessed.
Small grain and row crops
Winter wheat conditions are of concern after the hard freeze. Normally, a thin layer of snow will help protect dormant winter wheat throughout periods of frost, especially in the primary growing states of Kansas and Oklahoma. The February 2021 freeze lasted much longer than average, and temperatures dipped well-below where winter wheat can survive. A major difference with Texas grown winter wheat is the lack of the snow insulation to protect against low temperatures. 4.8 million acres of winter wheat are currently dormant in Texas, which is 15% of the entire U.S. crop, according to USDA.
The hard freeze did not cause major delay to the early planting of corn and cotton in Texas, which typically ramps up in March. A positive for farming in the south-central U.S. in 2021 is a lesser risk of pest and disease outbreak due to such a hard frost.
Immediate issues for livestock were around water infrastructure. Electricity outages quickly halted ranches who rely on electric well water, water lines froze that bring water out to remote parts of pastures, and open ponds froze up limiting access to water. The lack of readily available water caused additional stress on top of the cold temperatures for many animals.
Portions of the primary hay growing areas of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas are all in a classified drought throughout the start of 2021 and hay is short. The shortage of hay caused livestock stress during a time when additional bedding and feedstock was required. Higher-than-normal newborn calve losses are being reported during the heart of calving season. Although cattle prices rallied in mid-February, ranchers are unable to capture revenue when their herds are shrinking due to death.
Livestock housing infrastructures were damaged by heavy snowfall and cold temperatures. Chicken houses throughout the southern U.S. fell victim to collapsed roofs and power outages that cut heat sources.
The full effects will be determined by USDA via updated inventory estimates in future livestock reports.
Fruits and vegetables
Southern fruit and vegetable crops took a major hit during the February freeze. Farmers will typically irrigate fruit crops immediately before a hard frost to help generate an insultation barrier of ice, but the lingering single-digit temperatures were too extreme for the ice approach. Citrus crops were decimated across southern Texas, although only 1.1% of U.S. oranges are grown in Texas, 33.7% of U.S. grapefruits are grown in Texas. Other budding fruit trees were also damaged due to the prolonged low temperatures. Irrigation infrastructure, both overhead and subsurface, need repair and decreased yields are possible.
Farmers and ranchers will be busy dealing with the effects of the historically cold winter for months and even years to come.