Crop insurance has kept him and others in the area going for the past three years. “But even that will catch up to us as we lose yield. Our average production history (APH) goes down each year and we will need a few years to recover. It’s rare to have three bad years in a row and with a 10-year average it will take us a while to work it back up.”

As bad as the drought has been and continues to be for farmers, Abernathy also worries about the area’s infrastructure. “They get hit first,” he says. “The gins, the warehouses and the oil mills take a big hit, and when we lose infrastructure it takes a while to build it back.”

Municipal water supply is also a concern. “We get municipal water from Tom Steed Reservoir and it’s only at 30 percent capacity. We don’t water lawns any more but apply just enough to keep our foundations from falling apart.

“Altus is a decent community with some good industry (including an air base). If we lose that because of lack of water, it will probably not come back.”

The gin in Altus processed 7,500 bales last year and likely will run about that many this year, mostly from outside the district where farmers have either received some rainfall or have groundwater for irrigation. The gin didn’t open in 2011. “We processed 122,000 bales in 2010,” Abernathy said.

Most of the water district lies within Jackson County with a bit in Green. Acreage served totals about 50,000 with most, near 95 percent, in cotton.

Abernathy depends on cotton. He plants a little wheat, sometimes for grain, sometimes for grain and grazing and sometimes as a cover for no-till cotton. “We’re planting this fall with too little moisture, hoping to get a stand,” he says. “If we get a good enough stand, we’ll graze stockers, but it’s looking less and less likely.”

He’s accustomed to planning a cotton crop with no assurance that the lake will provide enough water to irrigate. “When we’re making plans in the winter, more times than not there is not enough water in the lake to do what we plan. But, more times than not, it’s there during the season.

“There is no Plan B,” Abernathy says. He’ll grow cotton. “We have nothing to change and will stay with cotton. We also know that one good storm can fill the lake up. It’s happened before. In May and June we typically get the biggest influx of water into the lake. By then, we are already committed to the crop. Based on history, we will get rain.” But not for the last three years.

Caution will play a role in plans for 2014, but little will change as far as crop management is concerned. “I will not throw a lot of money at the crop early,” Abernathy says. “But I will expect to make a cotton crop. I might delay some inputs, such as fertilizer. But I’ll use the best varieties and will stay with transgenics—Roundup Ready and Bt. I’ll control weeds, no matter what.

“I make take a slightly more conservative approach, but I’ll do the usual things.” That includes reduced till planting on most fields. “I’ll still do some tillage where I row water,” he says.

“I’ve planted wheat for the last few years for cover, killed it and planted no-till cotton. I usually plant back over old cotton stalks.”

On dryland acreage, he rotates cotton and wheat, seeding the wheat behind the cotton crop and back to cotton after harvest if moisture is adequate. “That’s not feasible with drought. I’ve managed to get a crop up—wheat and cotton—every year.”

Abernathy remains, if not optimistic, at least hopeful. “It’s gotta rain sometime,” he says. “A few times it seemed like a sure thing. We can get a 1-inch or 2-inch rain and it will be gone fast because there’s nothing under it.”

 The day Abernathy spoke with Farm Press was cool, windy and overcast, but no rain fell on that day. Back to the east, clouds were darker, heavier and apparently producing rain. In some ways, even a distant rain offers promise. The next front, or maybe the one after that, could be the storm that refills the lake or the harbinger that points to the end of this drought cycle.

So Abernathy continues to watch the sky and work on his 2014 cropping plans.


Of interest:

Boll Weevil eradication efforts charted by TPPA conference

Drought effects still being felt in southwestern Oklahoma

Drought status significantly improved from two years ago