In more than four decades of farming, Texas cotton producer Rickey Bearden says he’s never seen an early growing season like this one.
In the past month, the South Plains — the world’s largest contiguous cotton patch — has endured seemingly blast-furnace conditions as unseasonably high temperatures and almost daily strong winds have sucked valuable moisture from soil and whipped plants with blowing sand.
All of his dryland acres are a total loss, just a month after they were planted.
“I’ve been here a long time and I seen it blow,” he said, “but not like this. Not for this long, this strong and this dry.”
Across Texas, the nation’s leading producer of cotton and cattle, heat and drought conditions combined with skyrocketing input costs could lead to record losses in agriculture this year.
The loss tally for all crops and livestock, which won’t be figured until later in the growing season, could top the largest single-year loss of $4.1 billion set in 2006.
“It’s a whole different scenario than we’ve ever seen as far as the potential loss,” said Travis Miller, Texas AgriLife Extension Service drought specialist. “We’ve lost a whole lot of money because there’s a whole lot more gone into those crops.”
On June 12, burn bans remained in 111 of Texas’ 254 counties and much of the state was in moderate, severe or extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor map. Last year at this time the entire state showed no drought.
May was drier than normal and June has been even drier, said state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon of Texas A&M University.
“If it stays dry a couple more weeks we’ll see a lot more in extreme” drought, he said. The 90-day outlook could spell some relief. The state forecast is for normal rainfall and temperatures, Nielsen-Gammon said.
Last year, the Lubbock area did not record a 100-degree day; already this year there have been about a half dozen days above the century mark.
The only areas not feeling a lack of rain lie east of Interstate 35, which runs through the middle of the state, Miller said.
No matter where farmers and ranchers are, the cost to grow crops or raise livestock is higher this year because of energy costs for pumping, the high price of fertilizer made from natural gas and diesel prices that are well above $4 a gallon. Crop insurance payments do not cover losses from these costs, officials said.
If the dire projections pan out it would be a turnaround from last year when Texas agriculture set a production record, surpassing $100 billion in economic impact to the state.
Cotton producers in South Texas have already lost nearly their entire crop. Those in the western part of the state held high hopes last month when timely rains dropped much-needed moisture as planting began.
“This thing came upon us like a vengeance,” Miller said.
As many as 500,000 acres of dryland cotton have already been lost on the South Plains because of the heat and windy conditions that are robbing the soil of as much as an inch of moisture a day, said Shawn Wade, spokesman for the Plains Cotton Growers, which serves a 41-county region. Bearden, who watched winds reach 80 mph on a recent weekend, said even his irrigated cotton is in jeopardy because blowing sand is damaging plants.
The acreage loss for both dryland and irrigated cotton could reach a million acres on the South Plains, Wade said.
“But most of that will probably be lost before we get to July the Fourth,” he said. “It’ll be cotton that just never came up or was blown.”
For ranchers, evaporation from the heat and the windy conditions are quickly depleting stock ponds that refilled from last year’s good rains, said Jim McAdams, a rancher who has spreads in several counties south and east of San Antonio.
His biggest concerns center on the volatility of commodity markets and the high cost of inputs.
“I’ve never seen it so volatile and uncertain,” the 58-year-old rancher said. “Then you throw this weather in here … and we’re in a scary time where we could see our money and our cattle and our grass all wiped out at the same time.”
On the Net:
U.S. Drought Monitor, June 2007 and June 2008 maps: http://www.ndmc.unl.edu/dm/archive.html
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