Drought continues to tighten its grip across the Plains, and it’s forcing farmers in west Texas to make some very difficult decisions this growing season. Depleted soils, along with bleak forecasts showing little chances for rain anytime soon, is a tough reality for farmers who struggled through a drought ravaged crop season in 2022.
It’s hard to forget the scenes from February. A dust storm tore through the southern plains, unlike anything most area farmers had ever seen.
“We had 90 mile an hour winds here,” says Brad Heffington, a farmer in Littlefield, Texas. “I had six center pivots that went down and it tore stuff up all around the farms. And it just turned sand loose that we hadn’t had before.”
“I’ve been here my entire life and that was one of the worst ones I’ve seen,” says Travis Mires, who farms in O’Donnell, Texas.
The winds kicked up an eerie red cloud of dirt. It also created static electricity that added insult to injury for farmers who were already staring at a bleak winter wheat crop.
The high winds, combined with deep drought, is causing dirt and sand to blow from fields onto roads and highways, even causing some roads to be shut down from so much dirt piled up on the roads. Road crews have been trying to keep roads clear, but it’s been a challenge. Even dryland fields that were planted in cover crops have dried up in some cases, and it’s causing even more dirt and sand to blow.
“We’re fortunate a lot of the ground was covered with wheat for cover crop and grazing, but the chances of a dryland harvest crop on wheat are fading by the day,” says Martin Stoerner, a farmer in Lockney, Texas.
Farmers saw another round of severe winds this week, with brown skies serving as a reminder that the drought is still planted in an area that should be seeing planters rolling for corn or sorghum soon.
From fried fields of rye to roads drifted over with sand and dirt, the scenes are constant reminders of just how brutal the weather can be. And farmers in the area say they try to keep the ground covered with some type of crop during the winter, but with little to no rain this winter, dryland cover crops couldn’t survive.
“Some of my neighbors had cleaned, tilled fields, which drifted over around us, causing us some problems,” says Mires. “It’s not their fault. There’s just not much you can do this at this point.”
Mires’ farm is 45 miles south of Lubbock. He says they’ve seen less than a half inch of rain all winter long, and last year, was a similar story. The ground was already depleted, and with another year of drought, the situation is setting up to be challenging again this year.
“I’ve been farming for 40 something years, and last year was the first year I didn’t have a row of cotton on any of my farms. We didn’t even get our irrigated up,” he says. “Without some help from other nature, with our limited irrigation, we can’t grow a crop.”
With soil moisture profiles already empty, it’s causing more concerns about this year’s crop.
“I’m not trying to be negative but that will probably in worse shape going into this crop than we were last year because we lack even more rain to catch up,” says Heffington. “We’re going to need several rains before we can even plant, because it’s dry 4′ or 5′ deep.”
Farmers in this area of Texas are just a month away from the start of cotton planting. They are wondering if they’ll even be able to grow a crop on their parched dryland acres this year.
“It’s time for us to start strip tilling and making some decisions about planting stuff, and it’s really scary to do anything because if you put a tractor in the field, there’s a good chance of [the soil] turning loose and blowing out at this point,” says Mires.
As farmers across the Plains weigh their options of what to plant, delaying those decisions has become a growing theme.
“I’ve got cottonseed booked, I’ve got corn seed booked and I’ve got grain sorghum seed booked,” says Herffington. “I don’t know what we’re going to plant.”
“This is probably as late in the year as we’ve ever been undecided on planting intentions,” says Stoerner. “With the ratio of corn to grains, there’s still a chance that some could go to grain, but for the most part in this area, it’s cotton country, but that ratio is more favorable to grain right now.”
Cotton Acres Shrink
USDA’s 2023 Prospective Plantings report released on March 31 showed farmers intend to plant 11.3 million acres of cotton this year, which is down 18% from 2022.
In Texas, USDA says farmers intend to plant 21% fewer acres this year compared to last.
Darren Hudson, professor and Larry Combest chair, ag economics at Texas Tech University, points out the acreage picture could shrink even further, as abandoned acres could be high.
“Especially in this area, they’re going to be big if we don’t get some rain pretty quickly,” he says. “There will be acres planted, it’s still going to be lower than historical, because their grain alternatives are better. But I think we’re going to have a lot of dry land planted acres that may not make it.”
The Cotton Planting Dilemma
It’s no secret cotton acres could see a sharp drop. Last week cotton prices saw a boost, but since last fall, cotton prices have drifted lower.
“I’m a diehard cotton person, that’s made our country out here,” says Heffington. “But right now the market is telling you not to plant it, and it’s crazy. We don’t really understand a lot of the fundamentals of it right now.”
Growers say today’s prices aren’t enough to cover their costs, as input prices are just too high.
Two years ago, 80 cent cotton price would look attractive, but with our high input costs, the current commodity price for cotton is is not covering cost to production,” says Stoerner.
Concerns About Crumbling Cotton Infrastructure
There’s a reason these fields in west Texas are rooted in cotton:
- Cotton doesn’t require as much water as corn to be grown, which typically is better suited for their arid climate.
- The amount of infrastructure built to support the cotton industry in the area.
“We’re very concerned about infrastructure, especially if we have several back-to-back years of a lesser than desirable base crop because it has a huge toll on them,” says Kody Bessent, CEO of Plains Cotton Growers (PCG).
Bessent says business after business in west Texas and the Texas Panhandle depend on cotton production each year.
“They rely solely on volume and without that volume, they lose the financial means to maintain overhead to maintain employees and to maintain the doors quite frankly open,” he adds.
Bessent says once Mother Nature does finally provide the much-needed relief, cotton’s raw fiber is one that needs robust infrastructure to process and then market that crop. That’s why PCG is looking for different ways to support an industry that has been a vital piece of the Texas economy.
“I was at an event the other day, and a gentleman in the cotton industry said during the early 90s, there were roughly 520 cotton gins in Texas, and because of some of the catastrophic events we’ve seen over time, we’re down to 184 today,” Bessent says. “So our volume is shrinking.”
PCG is currently working to secure infrastructure assistance at both the state and federal level, knowing these cotton gins have to survive in order for all of Texas’ cotton industry to thrive.
Today, the reality is without essential rains between now and June, the prospects of planting and growing cotton are dwindling by the day.
“As high as input costs are, it’s a big gamble to plant it, hoping it will come up,” says Heffington. “Planting and hoping it’ll come up–that’s just not a very good business decision.”
Weather forecasts point to a weakening La Niña, which could help loosen the drought. However, many longer-range forecasts don’t point to that happening until July, which would be too late for a cotton crop that needs to be planted by early June.