Last fall, on a drive from Denton, Texas, to Lubbock, Texas, it was difficult to tell the difference between dryland and irrigated cotton. In fact, some farmers tell me their dryland acres made better than their watered cotton.

The difference is distinctive this year.

Monday, I followed Highway 380 from Denton to Post, Texas, and then headed north, through Slayton, Texas, and on into Lubbock. I started seeing a few cotton fields just east of Haskell, Texas. The first ones looked promising, bolls still on the stalks, shining white in the morning sun.

A car seat estimate at about 55 miles per hour would put yield close to 2 bales per acre, maybe a little less, but it looked good from the road.

These fields suffered little from drought. I couldn’t be sure they were irrigated. I didn’t see telltale pivot tracks or the machinery from the highway, but the crop looked too good to be dryland, considering the lack of rain the area suffered most all summer.

And, just a few miles west, fields looked different. Stalks had stopped growing at about 6 inches. One or two bolls, about the size of a Tootsie Pop, clung to the tops of the plants, at least on the few that survived. Spacing seemed to be about one stalk every 3 feet.

Some areas had more but a few rows would be devoid of vegetation for several yards with equal emptiness in several rows to each side. Spotty stand hardly describes the condition.

Still, I hear reports of three and close to 4-bale cotton, all irrigated, of course, and some with drip systems. Earlier in the season I saw a lot of irrigated cotton that looked capable of making 3 bales, but that was a month or so before the crop was ready to harvest.

No bin buster this year, but most folks will make a crop and survive another year.

Overall, fall growing conditions look better than they did this time a year ago. Farmers throughout most of the region have received some rain. Wheat stands look good. Pastures have greened up and stock tanks are filling. On 380, various branches of the Brazos run red with water in areas that were all but dry gulches just three months ago. Heavy rains have begun to recharge the soil profile.

The drought remains. Dust devils follow cultivators and harvesters, swirling with the fall winds, reminders that farmers need consistent rainfall throughout fall and winter to be ready for 2007 planting.

e-mail: rsmith@farmpress.com