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Southwest U.S. Remains Gripped In Drought

The Southwest hasn’t had to endure all the 12 plagues of Egypt this growing season but they’ve had enough to test most folks’ religion just with dust, wind, drought and wildfires that, all combined, will result in millions of dollars of crop losses before harvests conclude.

June 7, 2011

11 Min Read
Southwest U.S. Remains Gripped In Drought

The Southwest hasn’t had to endure all the 12 plagues of Egypt this growing season but they’ve had enough to test most folks’ religion just with dust, wind, drought and wildfires that, all combined, will result in millions of dollars of crop losses before harvests conclude.

A few areas have received rain in the past few weeks but recent reports indicate that all areas of Texas and most of the rest of the region remain under at least some category of drought. Most of Texas and Oklahoma qualify in a severe to exceptional drought status.

As Terry McCalister, who farms between Wichita Falls and Vernon, says, “It’s BAD in North Texas.

“We finished wheat harvest today, and yields generally ran from 2 bu. to 10 bu./acre,” he says. “We had a couple of ‘outstanding’ fields that made 20 bu., but they were the exception. We should not have cut some of these fields, as they were worse than we thought, but we owned two combines and had already made the decision to just run over the acres. Sometimes in disgust you do foolish things.”

He’s lived with drought for most of the year, actually going back to last fall.

“We received 1.5 in. of rain May 19, which is the only appreciable moisture we’ve had since November. We jumped in the fields May 22 and 23, planting sesame and hay. With temperatures over 100°, and winds over 30 mph, the moisture was gone before most of the seed sprouted. Some of it came up but it is not a good stand.

“We don’t have moisture to get cotton up, and the forecast is not in our favor. Our final plant date for cotton is June 20. We plan to wait until about June 13 to start putting seed in the ground. Then it will be out of our hands. If it rains and comes up, great, and, if not, we’ll be begging at the feet of our insurance company for a check!”

Wildfires have added to McAlister’s woes.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time fighting grass fires as there is usually one every day somewhere,” he says. He can’t remember a worse drought.

“This is as bad a situation as I have ever seen in North Texas. We have a lot of stock water because we cleaned several ponds 8-10 years ago, but it won’t be long before there’ll be no grass and little water. The fact we’re entering that time of summer when there are rarely any drought-breaking rains is also of great concern.”

It’s not much better in Southwest Oklahoma.

Keeff Felty, who farms near Altus, says conditions are dry and summer heat and high winds are taking a toll.

“Right now it is 99° with wind from the south at 20 miles per hour and gusts to 30.”
Recent rains gave them some hope, for a little while.

“We had 1.2 to 4 in. of rain about two weeks ago,” Felty says. “Some cotton was dry planted and dried out again before it had a chance to sprout. Some sprouted and died. Some made it, but the moisture did not meet below it.”

He says the irrigation district released lake water May 31. “We’ve been allocated 6 in. for the year. It will take most of that on the first watering.”

Felty says most of the irrigated cotton has been planted. “Wheat harvest is basically over. The yields ranged from 5-40 bu./acre. Most were averaging around 20 to 24.”

Garden spot

Northeast Texas may be the most promising spot in the region, says Jim Swart, Texas AgriLife Extension integrated pest management specialist.

“The wheat crop is very good with many growers averaging around 60 bu./acre,” Swart said. “We are about halfway through harvest. The corn and grain sorghum crops are promising and look very good at this time.”

The area has received what growers refer to as “adequate rainfall,” since early spring.
Rusty Strickland, a peanut and cotton farmer from Quail, Texas, says conditions remain dry.

“The last (appreciable) rain we had was Nov. 12. We got four-tenths about a month ago, but numerous days of 40-mph wind have this country in sad shape. My irrigated crop is planted and up. We are running our pivots non-stop.”

He’s planted mostly cotton, “with a couple of circles of peanuts. We need a rain and less wind to continue yielding like normal,” he says.

Todd Baughman, Texas Extension peanut specialist and agronomist at Vernon, TX, says peanut acreage is down.

“Peanut acres were going to be off this year anyway,” he says. “Dry weather and cotton prices already had taken 35-40% of the acres prior to this continued drought.”

He says Rolling Plains cotton farmers are waiting to plant dryland acreage. “Most dryland acres have not been planted in the Rolling Plains with much of the areas’ last planting date June 20. We will likely start seeing quite a bit go in dry this week.”
He predicts that most intended acreage will be planted.

South Texas received rain

In South Texas, recent rainfall has improved prospects for cotton and grain sorghum.
Jimmy Dodson, Corpus Christi, Texas, cotton and sorghum producer, says the South Texas Coastal Bend area south of Victoria may be one of the bright spots in the state as crops begin to mature. To the north, conditions are much worse.

“Corn north of Victoria is about burned up,” he says.

“A small percentage, probably less than 10%, of cotton fields south of Victoria have failed because of no stand,” he says. “The prospects for the rest of the crop depend on whether fields got showers in late April and early May.”

The area had from 1.5-2 in. of rain during that period – in small showers. The area also had 5 in. of rain in January to provide early-season moisture.

“We can still make a normal crop if we get rain this week. If we get rain within two weeks, we can make a crop that’s just below normal. If we get no more rain, we’ll make a half or two-thirds of a crop.”

He says milo could make two-thirds to three-fourths of a crop with no more rain. He expects grain sorghum to average from 3,000-3,500 lbs./acre without additional rainfall.
Crops are maturing early because of unusually high heat units. “We’re at 33% more heat units than our 30-year average,” he says.

Not all of South Texas has fared as well. Dodson said parts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley have been hit hard by drought. “The Upper Coast is a wreck and the area around Uvalde and Winter Garden is a wreck.”

He said reports indicate that the Frio River is at the lowest flow since 1951, at about 1cfm. Normal flow is around 27cfm.

“The worst place I’ve seen is around McCook.” He says cattlemen are feeding cattle and still seeing death losses. Deer and hogs are also thin and just hanging on.

Good prices will help, Dodson says. “If we can make a crop we have a lifetime opportunity. Prices are good, so we will be okay.”

Dodson says wheat yields have ranged from 10-50 bu./acre, “depending on if the fields got showers or not.

Infrastructure, he says, “will take it on the nose,” as cotton gins and grain elevators see significant less business from reduced production.

High Plains taking a beating

The High Plains is taking a beating, says Rex Carr, seed, chemical and fertilizer manager for Brownfield Farmers Co-op in Brownfield, TX. “Conditions are extremely bad as far as the drought and wind. Lots of drip cotton has been replanted due to dry surface and windy conditions. Peanuts are looking good but will need a rain to make any sort of yield.” He says peanut acreage is “way down from last year. I heard one peanut company only has 1,000 acres contracted in Hockley County.”

Cotton farmers were scrambling to get a crop “dusted in” before the June 5 insurance deadline.

Jay Yates, Texas AgriLife Extension economist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Lubbock, says cotton farmers are scurrying to get seed in the ground.

“Everyone is getting cotton planted right now.”

He say most dryland farmers expect very little from the 2011 crop and may have to rely on crop insurance to salvage anything.

“(Cotton farmers) will be keeping their irrigated acres watered in hopes of a return to $2 prices in the fall. No one is talking about (planting) sorghum in this weather. That could all change with a June 21 ‘soaker.’ If late June storms come with lots of rain and hail, some irrigated cotton acres may go to sorghum, but the attitude seems mostly to take the $1.23 indemnity and get ready for next year.”

Mary Jane Buerkle, director of communications and public affairs for Plains Cotton Growers (PCG), Inc., says farmers “dusted in” dryland acreage last week ahead of the June 5 insurance deadline. “Areas south of us have until June 10. It's been hard on the irrigated producers as well, trying to get the cotton up and often having to run sand fighters at the same time.”

She says Lubbock has had no rainfall this spring. “Some areas to the west and east have gotten a little but not enough to make much of a difference.”

She says PCG has heard no reports of significant acreage cutbacks. “There may be some acreage shifts from dryland way up to the north (near the top of the Panhandle) where they don't have good crop insurance history.”

She says planting at this point is not the question; getting a stand is a big issue. “If it doesn't rain within the next week or two, we're looking at possibly 2 million dryland acres lost in our area.”


Vic Schoonover, who keeps up with cotton prospects for North Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas Cotton, Inc. (NTOK) and canola for Producers Cooperative Oil Mill in Oklahoma City, said a lot of winter canola has been swathed in Oklahoma now, waiting to be harvested.

“Hail harmed some of it, particularly in the Okarche and Kingfisher areas. Gene Neuens with Producers Cooperative Oil Mill says farmers may still see a pretty good return even if some of the canola seed has been shattered on the ground.

“He’s predicting yields of 1,500-1,600 lbs./acre with most of the crop waiting to be harvested. In Southern Oklahoma, many acres of canola have been lost to drought and weeds and insurance has not been helping. He (Neuens) says canola is doing well in comparison to wheat. One wheat field in Tillman County yielded 25 bu./acre in a very dry year primarily because it followed winter canola. In the same field where wheat followed wheat the previous year, yield was only 10 bu./acre.”

Wheat yields are a mixed bag. “Some farmers in Jackson County had wheat receiving very little rain from January to April, 2011, and still made yields of 23-27 bu./ acre in no-till fields,” Schoonover says.

“A lot of wheat was grazed out; extreme drought conditions brought yields of 9 bushels to 19 bushels in many areas. Around Bessie, OK, two small fields of wheat yielded 30 bu. and 40 bu. Probably isolated showers fell just at the right time.”

He says wheat harvest in Oklahoma is about 255 complete, according to Plains Grain, Inc.

Randy Boman, OSU Extension cotton program director, discussed the cotton situation: “Near Altus,” Boman said, “only about 22% of normal rainfall has fallen since Jan. 1. Other areas, generally west of a line from Davidson, Tillman County, to Snyder, Kiowa County, to Elk City, Custer County, on I-40 west, have had a difficult May. Rainfall in other areas where cotton was planted under center pivots received considerable amounts of rain and in some areas, questions were asked about the need to replant.

“Even after badly needed rainfall, both dryland and irrigated fields in the drier western areas have experienced significant moisture loss in the upper soil profile and plantings are sometimes being lost due to severe environmental conditions.”

Schoonover says Boman believes farmers still have time to get a dryland cotton crop going but a large amount of dryland acreage remains under drought pressure. “Farmers in some areas were able to plant after rain storms on May 19-20, and plants in those fields are emerging.”

Schoonover says he’s seen only one field of young grain sorghum east of Altus, in the irrigation district. “It needed some moisture. The young plants are turning a light green and beginning to shrivel under the hot southwest winds. We have had more continuous hot, dry winds from the southwest than I can remember with average wind speed nearly 40mph, not counting the gusts. And these winds have continued to blow after dark, when the wind in this country usually settles down.”

Schoonover says a lot of farmers are taking advantage of grazing CRP fields with the new USDA allowances.

“Native pastures that greened up after the May 19 and 20 rains in Southwest Oklahoma are now browning up again. Stock water in natural ponds has not become a major problem yet in the southwest corner of the state, but farther north and west ponds have been drying up since late winter. Not many beef cowherds are to be seen, but that’s probably due to the high cattle prices; a lot of cows and replacement heifers have been sold.”

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