Two consecutive droughts may be changing the way Texas High Plains cotton farmers manage their crops.

“I think drought is altering the way we look at water and the way we irrigate,” says Matt Wilmeth, Ralls, Texas, farmer and banker. “We may need to reduce the amount of irrigated acreage,” he says, and possibly change crop mixes to conserve water resources that continue to decline across the High Plains.

He’s currently managing nearly 1,500 acres of cotton. He converted 150 acres to grain sorghum following a hailstorm that took out some cotton early. “All but 100 acres of that is irrigated,” Wilmeth says. “Twenty percent is in subsurface drip irrigation; we have 30 acres of row-water irrigation; and the rest is under pivots.”

The 2012 crop, he says, “is not bad — it’s way better than it was last year. Most of our acreage is just a little below normal. Some of the drip irrigated acreage is as good as usual. We got some rain that other places missed.”

Last year, he says, the area “got basically no rain, and high temperatures and high winds also hurt.”

Wilmeth says his bank customers, many of whom have farm loans, have changed irrigation management to half-circles — watering cotton under half the pivot and growing the other dryland or leaving it fallow following wheat.

“We started to do that on one pivot this year, but we got some rain and planted a full circle.”

He says if grain prices stay high he may try to plant a short season corn variety — 100-day maturity — and cotton after that. “I would plant as early in March as possible and would be through watering corn by the time cotton needs moisture.”

He says planting corn on the outside or the inside of the cotton crop would be more efficient than planting two half-circles. “We get more benefit from the water by making a full circle than by using a windshield wiper technique.”

Adding more subsurface drip irrigation is currently not an option, “unless we pick up another farm. We also like to have land available to graze for our commercial cattle operation.”

Cotton will remain most significant crop

He thinks the area will turn to more dryland cotton in the next few years. “If grain stays high into the fall and spring, we might see a temporary dip in cotton acreage. Long-term, cotton will remain the main crop for this area, but we may see some decline.”

He says some acreage is not well-suited to dryland cotton. “Soils are too tight; we typically get rain in the spring, and then we get runoff. A wheat/fallow/cotton rotation may be another option. That has worked well for some until the last two years of drought.

More half-pivots

“We are likely to see more half-pivots and crop rotation as water levels decline. We also can’t always depend on drip irrigation to fully charge. We can drop off a zone if we need to.”

When he started with drip irrigation, he could count on 3 gallons per acre. “Some fields are below that now. When we had better water, we also grew some seed milo and seed sunflower. We used to get hailed out a lot; we still get hail, but it seems to come earlier and we can replant cotton.”

Wilmeth is a frugal manager. “We use equipment as long as we can,” he says, and he buys good used equipment.

“We strip most of our own cotton, but hire some out every year. We get it out quicker that way and don’t have to spend $150,000 for a new stripper. With our acreage, we can’t justify owning a new stripper.”

He’s careful with crop nutrition as well, but applies what the crop needs. “We fertilize to production potential,” he says. “We treat everything about the same, except that we have a higher yield possibility with drip and will apply more nitrogen through the system as we see more potential.”

He puts some nitrogen out early, with the phosphorus. “We don’t apply too much in case we get hailed out.”

He’s trying to keep ahead of herbicide-resistant weeds. “We’re seeing some resistance, but we have never gone to a 100 percent Roundup program; we always put something else behind the planter or at lay-by. This year, we did both and made two Roundup applications. We are doing our best to minimize resistance problems.”

Banking duties

Wilmeth says he never set out to become a banker. About nine years ago a bank manager who had worked with him on farm loans for several years was impressed with his management ability and asked if he would be interested in working at the bank.

He says he doesn’t exactly specialize, but has a lot of farm customers, and thinks his experience on the farm is an asset to those clients. “They know I farm and that I can appreciate what they go through.

“I enjoy farming and banking — but I sometimes feel a little stretched, especially during planting and harvest. But when emergencies come up, the bank is very understanding and lets me off. I don’t abuse the privilege.”

He says being a good farm manager makes him a better banker.

Variety selection is somewhat geared to his responsibilities at the bank. “I plant FiberMax 9063 and 9180. I know how these varieties grow. When I find something that works I stick with it, since I can’t be out in the field as often as I would like.”

He says the 9063 does well in the few areas where he has wilt. The 9180 is a good fit where water is weaker. “It hangs on in drought.”

Wilmeth says he sometimes feels “stretched too thin” with his work at the bank and his obligations on the farm, but his son Connor, a junior at Texas Tech, is a big help and takes some of the pressure off.

In mid-September, Wilmeth was about a month away from stripping cotton and was looking for yields considerably better than in 2011. He says that was by far the worst year he had ever seen and that folks who farmed in the ‘50s likely never saw a year that bad.

“And back then, they had more water available for irrigation.”