On the cusp of planting time in Parmer County, Texas, the assumption that conditions are better than they were a year ago may be met with more than a bit of skepticism. This area, on the far side of the Texas Panhandle, jutting up against the New Mexico state line, remains dry.

What little rain that has fallen since the historic drought of 2011 has been rapidly wicked away by high winds. It’s dusty except where center pivot irrigation systems are running to pre-water fields in preparation for milo, corn or cotton or to try to push winter wheat far enough to at least make a decent cover crop.

Farmers say the infrequent rains received since last fall came in small doses—measured in tenths of an inch—and did little more than provide momentary hope that the drought was broken. But it hangs on.

And so do farmers.

“We’ve had very little rain for the past 18 to 20 months,” says Wade Schueler, 34. “I’m not sure we’re better off than we were this time last year. I don’t know how long it would take to get moisture levels back up.”

He knows it will take more than sporadic quarter-to-half-inch rains to recharge the soil profile. He also knows that the 30-mile per hour winds that seem to come on the heels of those short showers leave little for the soil. “We just can’t seem to get any rain,” he says.

Even with irrigation, making a crop under these prolonged drought conditions is an onerous undertaking.

Schueler will go back to planting some corn this spring after planting none last year, a decision that may have raised a few eyebrows early on with corn prices at near historic levels but turned out to be a wise choice. “Last year was the first time I did not plant corn,” Schueler says. “That was one of the biggest blessings ever—even with high prices. Conditions got so dry that not planting corn was a good idea. We didn’t have enough water to grow corn.”

He planted grain sorghum and says that it “suffered some but made a good crop”—good enough to earn top honors in the state grain sorghum yield contest in the no-till, irrigated category.

He believes the combination of grain sorghum and no-till is a good option for this area. “I like to leave as much crop residue as I can,” he says. “A lot more farmers are turning to no-till.”

He likes to no-till grain sorghum into wheat stubble. “That worked great last year,” he says.

Drought conditions limited winter wheat survival this year, so he’ll have to change tactics. “I will strip-till into a wheat cover crop,” he says. “I’ll also break out some CRP land and strip-till into grass.”

CRP acreage

He thinks that CRP acreage will have some stored moisture and he will have irrigation capability. “I’ll have a half-circle of grain sorghum and a half-circle of corn on CRP land.”

Some of that sorghum will be conventionally-tilled.

Last year’s milo made about 105 bushels per acre, no-till, irrigated behind wheat. “I cut the wheat, swathed and baled the straw and no-tilled into stubble. All the moisture it got came through the sprinklers and I put close to 20 inches on it.”

He had half the pivot circle in grain sorghum and half in soybeans. Soybeans yielded 23 bushels per acre, “pretty good for the year we had,” Schueler says. But soybeans are tough to manage in the area because there is no local market. “We had to take them to Wichita, Kansas.”

He says weed control is one of the biggest challenges with milo. “I look forward to getting herbicide resistant grain sorghum,” he says. “That will be a game changer.”

He won the yield contest last year with Channel 5C35, a short-season hybrid he planted late, behind harvested wheat. He’ll plant more of that this year and also a full season Channel hybrid, possibly some DeKalb and perhaps some Pioneer selections. He says both of those seed companies had hybrids among the top yields in the 2011 contest.

Schueler also has 75 acres of irrigated barley he’s growing under contract for seed this spring. “That’s the only winter crop I’m growing.” He’ll double crop corn and grain sorghum for silage behind failed wheat.

He says 60 acres of grain sorghum will be devoted to silage production, contracted to a local feedyard. “I have 60 acres open that can go to silage or grain, depending on the year.”

Much of his corn will be silage.

Grain sorghum has potential

Schueler says he’s seeing more interest in cotton in the area but believes “grain sorghum could be a big deal here if it’s managed like a major crop. We need to look at grain sorghum hard for this area, but we need markets. We know grain sorghum feed value is as good as corn. Studies show that it grades out as well as corn. Supply is also an issue but I think we can get the acres if we get the demand.”

He also believes the combination of grain sorghum and no-till or reduced tillage systems makes a lot of sense for the area even though “a lot of farmers are reluctant to change. But we are seeing more and more switching and more strip-till equipment as part of dealer inventories.”

Schueler has worked full-time for a bank in Friona since February to augment farm income from the 480 acres he’s been able to put together since he started farming on his own in 2007. About 220 of those acres will be in grain sorghum. He may plant some dryland milo.  He’ll plant 120 acres in irrigated corn. “We can’t do dryland corn coming off a drought year,” he says.

He graduated from West Texas A&M in 200o with an agriculture degree and came back home to farm with his two brothers, who were raising crops and cattle. Schueler is more interested in farming than ranching so he started his own farm operation in 2007.

He says about 1,000 acres would be a good size farm but he hasn’t been able to put that many acres together yet. “I’d like more acreage but I can’t find it. There is not much farmland available.”

He also owns a custom spray service to diversify income. “When I get off at the bank at 4:00, I always know what I have to do next,” he says. “I have some long days but that’s all right for now.”

He says few his age are farming for a living. “If they have family already farming they have a chance,” he says. “If they don’t it’s nearly impossible. The cost of equipment and land is just too high.”

He works as a farm advisor with the bank and says he often chats with customers to see what they are doing and to pick up a few production tips. He thinks crop insurance will be an important consideration for most this year but assumes the cost will be higher.

“We need to understand crop insurance better,” he says. “And we need strict rules to qualify for coverage.”

And he, like every other farmer in the area, hopes conditions turn around before planting time and that crop insurance will be one of those production expenses they can look back on next fall and decide it was a good investment at the time but wasn’t really necessary after all.