Southwest Cotton Needs a Rebound

    While a few Southwest cotton fields flourished with yields to brag about at the gin, the majority of the region’s production suffered, from one weather extreme to another. (Farm Journal)

    While a few Southwest cotton fields flourished with yields to brag about at the gin, the majority of the region’s production suffered, from one weather extreme to another.

    From drought to start the year to cold, wet conditions at planting time and a blast furnace to follow, most dryland fields were dreadful and the irrigated crops struggled to hit normal yields.

    Texas is expected to harvest nearly 3.6 million acres, according to USDA’s Oct. 1 production report. But the number of abandoned acres keeps rising and harvested acres could dip to 3.4 million or less, says Kody Bessent, CEO of Plains Cotton Growers, Inc. (PCG) in Lubbock, Texas.

    Texas growers planted about 6.25 million cotton acres, down from 7.8 million in 2022. Continued drought remaining from 2022, coupled with stronger grain prices in early 2023, were the lead reasons behind a shift from cotton. Oklahoma cotton planting was estimated at 530,000, off from 670,000 in 2022. Of those, only about 310,000 were pegged for harvest.

    USDA indicates Kansas will harvest only 88,000 acres from 115,000 planted, which was down from 165,000 planted in 2022. Arizona planted about 116,000 acres, up from about 103,000 in 2022. Only about 91,000 are being harvested. New Mexico growers planted about 80,000 acres, similar to 2022. There were expected to harvest only about 38,000.

    PCG represents growers in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains, where more than half of the Texas crop is produced.

    “Unfortunately, the vast majority of our region’s cotton acres were abandoned early due to drought conditions,” Bessent says. “That continued throughout much of June, July and August.

    “Growers were excited early on after May and June rain. We had good planting conditions. But it didn’t rain again for many areas, while observing well over 100-degree temperatures consecutively until September. That was too late,” he adds.

    Other than a few spots in the Panhandle, West Texas had little dryland cotton that made it to harvest. Irrigated production also stalled due to a dry soil profile to start the season following the 2022 drought. Irrigation wells saw groundwater dwindle.

    “Irrigators used the best agronomic practices they could to get the most out of their water,” Bessent says. “Many using center pivots devoted their water to half or one-third of the circle, or used different row spacing to help conserve water. But in the end, you still must need Mother Nature’s help to make a crop.”

    Central Texas also saw lower yields, as did most growers in the Upper Gulf Coast and Coastal Bend. Justin Chopelas, independent consultant near Corpus Christi, can’t get over the more than 96 days of 100 degrees or higher weather. A promising crop seared under the sun in a region where yields often top 3 bales per acre.

    “That heat just killed the crop,” Chopelas moans. “It was bone dry in March and many dry-planted their cotton. There was hope after good rains in April, but there was little rain afterward. Much of the Coastal Bend area will average only about 1 bale. The east side of the area saw 1,200 pounds in some pockets. A few hit 1,400. Those crops had better potential.”

    Hot weather pushed the limit on irrigation systems in the southeastern New Mexico and Southwestern Texas region, says Gary Beverage, consultant with Nutrien Ag Solutions in Artesia, N.M.

    “Yields are variable. If fields had plenty of water, it’s a good cotton crop of 3 bales or better,” he says. “Some growers are hoping for 3.5 bales per acre. But where wells were tested by heat and excessive drought, yields will be lower.”

    Overall, Texas yields are expected to barely surpass 500 pounds per acre; barely a bale, compared with about 735 pounds in 2022. In Oklahoma, USDA forecasts yields at about 418 pounds per acre, down from 634 in 2022. Mike Schultz, superintendent, Oklahoma State University Research Center in Altus, notes a large chunk of Oklahoma’s failed cotton acres are in the Altus region.

    The regional irrigation district’s Lake Altus depends on rain to provide water for growers. But little rain fell.

    “That’s why everything in the irrigation district is being harvested with a shredder for insurance purposes,” Schultz says. “Most dryland cotton was zeroed out. Areas farther north received better rainfall and are seeing better crop conditions. Yields are near normal or higher in the Caddo County area around Carnegie.”

    Not All Yields Were Terrible

    Although Kansas’s cotton acres were also down, yields are higher than expected, says Rex Friesen, manager, Southern Kansas Cotton Growers Co-op in Winfield. “Preliminary calculations indicate our average yield is 860 pounds per acre,” he says. “That’s much better than we were thinking after a slow start. All things considered, that’s terrific.”

    Arizona, which depends almost entirely on irrigation, is forecast to yield about 1,260 pounds on average, according to USDA, down from nearly 1,500 pounds in 2022. With summer temperatures typically in the 100s, last summer was particularly hot. Cotton suffered.

    “In July and August, we had 30 days of uninterrupted heat stress in the central part of the state,” says Randy Norton, University of Arizona Extension Cotton specialist.

    “It was 115 to 120 (during that period). Cotton likes heat, but it needs lower nighttime temperatures to cool down. It needs to rest. Also, there were reduced irrigation supplies due to the heat. Yields that average about 3 bales are closer to 2.5 bales this year.”

    PCG’s Bessent says the weak overall Texas yield of 500 pounds per acre illustrates the troubles growers had in making a crop on acres they didn’t abandon.

    Crop insurance claims will help offset part of the losses, but nothing near what a crop will return to growers or infrastructure.

    “Crop insurance is the keystone of farm policy,” Bessent says. “Growers rely on that from a cash flow standpoint. When you have a year like this, they can bank on insurance programs to help keep them in business. It doesn’t keep them whole, but can keep them from going bankrupt. It helps them move forward.”

    Bessent points out that infrastructure segments such as gins, warehouses and merchants do not have the same access to risk management tools: “Once a gin shuts down, it doesn’t reopen — and the last two years of drought and loss of production have hurt.

    “Lately, infrastructure is an ever-growing concern, as the cotton industry uniquely depends on volume to keep doors open. When we do have another good crop year — and we will — there may not be enough infrastructure to support the volume. Producers may experience delays in selling their crop,” Bessent says.

    As for the fate of the 2023 crop, he notes: “Most farmers are trying to get off this crop and pivot into the new calendar year. When we see the discovery price for insurance, it will help dictate what they will plant in 2024.

    “Most are set up on a rotation, with say cotton on a half circle and corn or sorghum on the other portion. The discovery price will help them determine how that rotation changes,” Bessent adds.

    Bessent will be among other commodity group leaders who will continue to make periodic trips to Washington to promote a sound farm bill. But all would rather have the ability to manage Mother Nature and prevent drought and other weather disasters.

    Unfortunately, that’s not a lobbying skill anyone possesses.

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