Cotton growers on the South Plains have been battling weather all season, so a clear and warm October would come as a blessing.
The forecast looks good, but fingers are still crossed.
More recently the issue was the two weeks starting in late September with cool temperatures and heavy cloud cover. Still, if October stays warm and sunny then cotton growers, on average, are expecting a good year. So long as a freeze doesn’t come early, highs in the 70s and 80s are exactly what farmers need.
“It has been been a roller coaster,” said Steve Verett, executive vice president of the Plains Cotton Growers. “But what I’m hearing from most folks is that we’re still in pretty good shape … people are saying it’s not going to be that big giant crop we may have thought it was going to be, but it’s still going to be a very good crop. That’s the best way I know to sum it up.”
Verett looked at some numbers, and said farmers in the 40-plus counties that make up the Plains Cotton Growers’ produced an average of 3.65 million bales of cotton a year in the past decade. The latest projection Verett saw for this year had the high plains producing 5.12 million bales. Verett said some growers are having a difficult year, no question, but production as a whole should be better than average.
Those cooler temperatures in weeks past delayed the maturity of cotton, said Wayne Keeling, an agronomist with Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Lubbock. Although unfortunate, he said, it’s not that unusual for this time of year — but for farmers who had to plant late or replant, this cool spell came at a time when they really needed sun.
“Generally you don’t get that many cloudy days together, but again, I think on the early crop that wasn’t too negative,” said Keeling. “By now you pretty much have all the bolls you’re going to make and you just want to mature those out, mature the fiber in those bolls. When you get cloudy days and cooler temperatures, you just slow that boll development. The fact that we’re getting so late in the season, it’s hard to make that up.”
With a warm October leading into harvest, Keeling said, for most their cotton should reach a good growth point.
Barry Evans, a cotton grower in Swisher County, said this has been his experience.
“Overall we got a good crop in the ground,” said Evans. “We’ll be OK. We just won’t have those top-end grades like we did last year. We missed those heat units when we typically get them, but we’re a long way from a wreck.”
Seth Byrd, a cotton specialist at Lubbock’s Texas AgriLife Extension Service, isn’t just blaming this recent weather. He said it’s been a challenge for farmers all year.
Byrd said weather was a little too cool around planting time at the beginning of May, and it was followed by a hot period with rough wind. July was good with rain and sunlight, but in August, Byrd said, that rain just kept coming. The rain came with little sunlight, which Byrd said was a challenge. Then in late September, cloud cover remained for several weeks.
“From the start of this season, from the time we planted, we’ve been battling just to stay on track,” said Byrd. “People planted late, people replanted, and we had late emergence all because of the weather … when you limit light temperature, you really limit the amount of growth and development you can do. You can’t build that fiber, you can’t build that fruit-load, you can’t fill bolls when you don’t have sunlight and heat.”
According to information from the Lubbock National Weather, only .58 inch of rain fell on Lubbock County in May, which is when farmers needed that original moisture during planting. Then in July Lubbock received 5.84 inches of rain, which is 3.93 inches above averages, and in August received 4.85 inches, which is 2.94 inches above average. This doesn’t take into account sunlight, and Byrd said the heat accumulation was below average in August.
Circumstances for each grower vary — this year maybe more so than others. A dry planting season followed by wind and heavy rain scattered throughout the South Plains forced some growers to replant at different times. Continuous cool temperatures in the northern Panhandle appear to have essentially ended the growing season early, while other growers further east in the northern Panhandle and in lower elevations have reportedly had good weather. Scattered weather events have impacted growers differently.
Call it luck in location.
Doug Hlavaty is a cotton farmer in the Lubbock area who said he lost nearly a third of his cotton crop, about 1,600 acres, due to hail and strong wind he was hit with in early July. Hlavaty then planted corn in that high-impacted area.
Despite that early setback, Hlavaty said, the cotton seems to be coming in alright.
“The cotton that we kept looks pretty good,” he said. “We still have some thin places that won’t be as good as we thought, but overall we should make more than we did last year. But we made an average crop last year while a lot of people made a really good crop.”
Byrd said the optimism right now is coming from the October forecast, which is showing highs in the 70s and 80s.
“Right now we’ve actually got probably the best conditions we’ve had in a while to mature some bolls,” said Byrd. “What I’m telling folks is to take advantage of these warm days. If you need to mature bolls, hold off. Let’s let the weather do a little work. If you need to spray a harvest aid, do it while we’ve got the good weather. We don’t know how long this is going to last, so we need to take advantage of it while it’s here.”
Hlavaty was on his way to spray harvest aid Friday afternoon when he spoke to A-J Media.
What would be bad for farmers is if a hard freeze came earlier than expected — the general rule of thumb in Lubbock is that the first freeze typically happens around Halloween.
“If you had a killing freeze or a hard freeze tomorrow night or next week, we’d be in trouble,” Byrd said last week. “We’d not like to see that. We’d like to see some days to get some bolls open and get some fiber to mature.”
Darren Hudson, professor of agriculture and applied economics at Texas Tech, said he expects an average to an above-average yield. Nationally, he said the cotton yield may come in higher than it has in a decade.
“It’s a normal year, which is to say it’s very inconsistent across the area,” said Huston. “That’s typical. We get so much variability in weather across the area — who had moisture when, that kind of thing. Some areas had more weed pressure than others, or bug pressure, things like that. It’s largely just moisture and wind, especially in the early season.”