Proceed with caution.

That seems to be the thinking for many Southern Plains farmers as they prepare for the 2012 planting season, and as they think back on high investments and heavy losses from the 2011 crop that held high hopes this time last year.

“I see a little less optimism that I did this time last year,” says Rickey Bearden, Plains, Texas, cotton, grain and peanut farmer. “Farmers may not apply as many inputs early this year.”

“I’ll maintain flexibility until the first week in April,” says Dee Vaughan, who farms corn and cotton in Moore County, Texas. “We’ve done a little ‘double-booking’ of seed—cotton and corn—and will see what the moisture and the market situations are in April.”

He plans to increase cotton acreage to stretch water supplies.

“I guess you could say most are taking a cautious approach to crops this year,” says Rusty Strickland, who raises peanuts, cotton and small grain with his step-father, Tommy, near Quail, Texas. “We will take a more conservative approach to this year’s irrigated crop,” he says. “There will be a lot more half circles this time unless a farmer has tremendous water.”

All three say the devastating drought of 2011—as well as the prospect of another dry year if the La Nina phenomenon remains intact, as many meteorologists predict—encourages farmers to consider operational changes—even small ones—that could give them a better chance of making a profit.

Minor adjustments

Vaughan will make only minor adjustments. “I’ll add more cotton,” he says. “I’ll also plant corn later. Last year the later corn was the best. Over the last few years the new genetics (in corn) responded better planted late. We delayed planting about a week last year.”

Vaughan says April 15 is his usual target date to start planting corn. He waited until April 20 last year. “We’ll wait until about April 25 this year. Maybe we can outlast La Nina and get some cooling later in the season.”

Vaughan will not make wholesale cuts to production. “It’s full-bore ahead with fertility,” he says. He says with irrigation he knows he’ll make some crop. “And we have to be optimistic.”

He’ll maintain usual plant population as well. “Seed is important. We have to get a stand to grow a crop; without a good stand we fail before we get out of the gate.”

He says seed dealers have indicated “robust sales of cotton seed,” but he also suspects that many, as he’s done, have double-booked cotton and corn and will wait to see what April looks like.

Bearden says most farmers in his area have residual nitrogen left from last season’s failed crops so they’ll be cutting back a bit on early fertilization this year. “Folks are going to be less aggressive and take a ‘wait-and-see’ outlook to see what markets and moisture are going to be like.”

This time last year cotton farmers were fairly aggressive with production. “Conditions were dry but the price was higher. Now, folks will do what’s necessary to prevent land from blowing away. They won’t put the soil in jeopardy.”

He says folks have done some field work, however, taking advantage of December moisture to break land. Two days of 60 mile-per-hour winds, however, caused some damage.

He says crop mix likely will not change much in the Gaines, Terry and Yoakum County area, but peanuts could regain some acreage. “We lost a lot of peanuts last year because we did not have early contracts and cotton price was high.”

Still, he doesn’t anticipate more than a 15,000- to 20,000-acre shift between cotton and peanuts. And dryland acreage will go to cotton. “That’s what it’s best suited for,” he says.

“The memory of last year still weighs heavy on most farmers around here,” Strickland says. “I don't know of anyone who wants to go full throttle after last summer.  My personal rotation will be a lot more balanced.  After a few years of mainly cotton, I’m ready for several peanut acres.”

He’ll concentrate peanuts on his best water. “But I am not ready to put the whole farm in peanuts after last year.”

He says aggressive production tactics early proved the wrong approach in 2011. “We really pushed our cotton and peanuts early, and that turned out to be the wrong decision,” he says. “By August, our crops were overloaded and relentless heat caused major fruit shed.”

Irrigated wheat will help spread risks this year. “Tommy and I are growing several hundred acres of irrigated wheat, so we can concentrate our water on fewer acres of summer crops.”

Crop mix is still unsettled.

“We know we will have several acres of peanuts, but with no contract I can't tell you how many acres. It makes it hard to plan and borrow money to farm peanuts when all you can figure on is the loan price. Cotton price may not be a lot better, but cotton has good insurance, a major plus over peanuts. Considering the summer we just had that has to be taken into consideration.”

Strickland says last year was the first time he ever collected multi-peril insurance on any irrigated crops.

Wait and see

He’s also taking and wait-and-see approach on early inputs. “My pre-plant inputs such as fertilizer will be minimal until I get a crop established and see how hot and dry we are by June. We will use strip till on all the cotton acres and maybe some of the peanuts. I am still seeing better yields from my peanuts by conventional tillage, but after 70 mile-per-hour winds last Sunday I may be willing to take a reduction in yield rather than stir the sand up.”

He says dryland production is “a wait and see game.”  

Despite the overall poor production year in 2011, he made some good peanuts. “On a positive note, I did have a circle of peanuts that made just less than 4,500 pounds and graded 75 to 78. Most years I would be disappointed, but that was one of the best fields around; most circles were not harvested.”

Bearden says farmers in West Texas learned a hard truth about irrigation last summer. “We proved last year that irrigation is supplemental. We can’t grow a crop just on irrigation. We have to have some help to make it work.”

As Strickland, Bearden and Vaughan refine their production plans, they continue to hope for winter moisture to fill the soil profile. They’ve had some precipitation but not enough. Vaughan says his area has had “more precipitation in the last 60 days than it received all last growing season.” That’s about 4 inches, so far. He says the soil in strip-till operations so far have been “plowing nicely.”

“We have not received enough moisture to build much of a profile,” Strickland says. “We did receive rains in the fall that really helped get our wheat going, but we haven't seen any measurable precipitation in about six weeks. Heavy winds have taken a toll on what moisture we did have.”

Bearden says several snowfalls helped partly recharge the soil profile but high winds took a lot of that. “It had gotten wet enough to start breaking land,” he says, before the winds hit.

Bearden also says crop insurance was a lifesaver last year. “The work we’ve done the last 15 years with crop insurance was important,” he says. “It helped us survive.”

Vaughan agrees. “No doubt the resiliency of the U.S. producer is the major factor in his determination that ‘it will be better next year,’” he says. “However, we have to admit that Federal crop insurance, a very successful public/private partnership, has a lot to do with the ability of producers to be able to be back next year.”