By most anyone’s judgment, Clint Abernathy is a good cotton farmer. Yields are consistently above average; fiber quality is good; and he’s judicious about conserving soil and moisture with efficient subsurface drip irrigation and no-till planting where feasible.
In 2008, Abernathy earned the Farm Press High Cotton Award for the Southwest region.
But this fall will mark the third year in a row he’s recorded a crop failure. Abernathy, who farms near Altus, Oklahoma, will harvest a few acres of dryland cotton from fields where spotty rainfall allowed cotton to survive.
But his irrigated acreage will fail, again.
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He, like other farmers in the Lake Lugert Water District, relies on the lake for irrigation water. The lake is virtually dry, down to about 12 percent capacity.
“We got enough water in 2011 to irrigate one time; we watered some fields twice,” Abernathy says. “But it was so hot and dry, we didn’t make a crop. And 2012 was the first time in 65 years that the water district did not deliver any irrigation water. It was the same this year. That’s a drastic change—no water released for two straight years.”
The Altus area, situated in the southwest corner of Oklahoma, remains one of the driest sections in the Southwest. As areas in the Texas High Plains and the Rolling Plains received scattered showers this summer, farmers in and around Altus watched clouds pass to the north, the south and the east.
“We’ve had 36 months of drought,” Abernathy says. “We made a huge crop in 2010, thanks to a July 4 rainfall. When we planted we didn’t have enough water in Lake Lugert to make the crop.”
Abernathy says the only period he knows that will compare to the last three years is the legendary drought of the 1950s. “And that was before my time.”
He’s farmed on his own since 1981 and has “been around the farm all my life. I’ve never seen a three-year stretch like this. What worries me is wondering if we are in the middle of a long-term drought or near the end. I sure hope it’s near the end.”
The area received “not much more than 10 inches of rain from January through October,” Abernathy says. “It was scattered; some areas got a little more, some a little less. We keep looking for the light at the end of this tunnel. Areas to the east and west have gotten good rains.”
Crop insurance helps
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.