Farmers on the Texas High Plains get used to weather oddities but the past week's cool weather and widespread rainfall threw a potentially tricky curveball their way. It's just the latest climate-related problem in a season of drought, high temperatures and hail storms. Lubbock, Tex. had a record-setting 7-plus inches of rain on Thursday alone. Flash flooding closed numerous roads in the area.
A rainy, cool September and October could affect the whiteness of cotton, resulting in fiber quality discounts. Some cotton fields hit hard by drought were replanted, meaning an early freeze would reduce yields and quality. Grain sorghum went in some of those replanted fields rather than cotton, and would be devastated by an early freeze.
Only time will tell whether that happens. For now, farmers remain in mostly good spirits but feel a bit jittery about what the next six months or so brings.
"Rain in September is usually accompanied by cool temperatures, and that's what we don't need. September in west Texas usually makes or breaks a crop. We haven't had a bad wet, cool fall since 1991. In the 1980's we had several. The cold weather shuts down the elongation of the cotton fiber, even if it doesn't freeze,” says Craig Heinrich, a cotton farmer at Slaton.
"This weather concerns me. As long as it warms back up in the 80's during the day and the night-time temperature doesn't get below 50, we can salvage it. Really, 85 in the daytime and 60 at night would be great. A warm temperature usually corresponds to a great grade for cotton.”
Area farmers aren't surprised by this latest weather quirk. "Wet, cool weather in late August and early September is pretty typical on the High Plains. I'm still optimistic we're going to make a good crop,” says Steve Newsom, who grows cotton near Levelland, Tex.
Rickey Bearden, Plains, Tex., takes weather challenges in stride. He is concerned, however, that his grain sorghum, planted on dryland fields where cotton failed to emerge, might get caught by an early freeze. "We need some really good fall weather and a late freeze to make much milo. Warm weather is better for cotton, too. We'll just have to wait and see what happens,” he says.
Freakish weather is just part of farming life here, says Gregg Nieman, who grows cotton at New Home, Texas.
"It didn't rain in June. It was hot, dry and windy. I lost a few acres to blowing wind. We watered all of June and July, then we got some rain in August. This September rain is just one more thing to deal with. I think the cotton varieties we grow now are pretty tough and they still have a chance to make a good crop,” Nieman says.
That hot, dry spring and summer resulted in $1.4 billion in farm losses in Texas, estimates Carl Anderson, Texas AgriLife Extension economist emeritus. That's bad but considerably less than the $4.1 billion farmers lost to the 2006 drought. Anderson expects much of the state's cotton, grain sorghum and corn to come in with less than half the yield of the outstanding 2007 crops.
Texas planted 4.7 million acres of cotton this year and lost 1.3 million acres of it to drought, blowing sand and high temperatures, Anderson says.