Farmers in the Texas Coastal Bend who were lucky enough to get crops out of the ground this spring could still make an average or a little less than average crop if they get something close to normal rainfall for the rest of the growing season.
Based on short-and medium-term forecasts, that’s not likely. More probable will be the rapid decline of the grain sorghum and corn that emerged and the near complete failure of cotton that either came up to extremely skippy stands or didn’t come up at all.
Some parts of San Patricio County got from two to two-and-a-half inches of rain early,” says Texas AgriLife County Extension agent Bobby McCool. “We’ve also had some cloudy days that helped. But cotton is very skippy.”
McCool stopped at a cotton field that, from the highway, seemed to have a decent stand. Walking the rows, however, showed long stretches where nothing emerged. In some rows, skips stretched out to 100 feet or more. Ten to 20-foot gaps were common. “Some plant populations are as low as 15,000 to 20,000 per acre,” he says.
He stopped at other fields where no cotton seedlings had made it through the dry soil. Most of that acreage, he surmised, will make nothing.
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McCool says the central and eastern part of the county received a little more rain than the rest of the area. That allowed early-planted corn and grain sorghum to emerge, but the outlook is grim as the drought promised to linger through late April and into early May. Sorghum plants that had reached 12 to 15 inches were beginning to show moisture stress early in the day. And most fields had large spots of yellowed leaves, symptoms of iron chlorosis, caused by lack of moisture that prevents roots from taking up vital micronutrients.
Irrigation is limited. “We have about 15,000 acres under irrigation in the county. That’s out of 230,000 acres, based on FSA numbers, planted last year,” McCool said.
Danny Wendland raises cattle, cotton and grain sorghum outside Sinton, the San Patricio county seat. “It’s mostly dry through here,” he says. “For cotton, it’s horribly dry. I replanted all my cotton once and some of it twice.”
Some of the replanted acreage is up. “It all depends on the block, and I can’t tell the difference in conditions between them. It’s the same land, the same management and planted at the same time.” They also received about the same amount of moisture. “But some of the blocks will not come up but the block across the ditch may have emerged.”
He says some minor difference in soil, moisture retention or another factor is affecting the crops.
“Cotton has not had much of a chance this year,” Wendland says. “We had a week of smoke blowing in from Mexico on top of not getting any sunshine. We also had 40 mile-per-hour winds that sucked out any moisture.
“Growth rate on sorghum is about 60 percent to 70 percent of normal. It’s had a little moisture but not enough to sustain it. Anything that damages sorghum within the first 90 to 100 days of growth will affect yield, as much as 10 percent per week until it gets to nothing. Right now, about 50 percent of my sorghum is shutting down.”
He says the other half is “okay” for now. It’s not uniform. “It’s wavy across the field; some plants are about 18 inches high, others are about a foot and there are a lot of skips.”
Cool temperatures have also hindered cotton progress. “With cold weather, cotton stops,” he says, “and it doesn’t have the energy to start back.”
McCool says he’s seen a lot of cotton that germinated but died in the soil before emerging because it had too little moisture to support it.
Crops have had “nothing but stress this spring,” Wendland says. “Some sorghum got hailed on but has put out new leaves.”
Average grain crop possible
He says if rainfall reverts back to something closer to normal he can make a partial crop. “But without rain, we will make no crop here whatsoever. Grain sorghum will shut down.”
He says longer-season hybrids are the most vulnerable. “Within the next 30 days they’ll start putting out flag leaves and shoot out the head. Then it will shut down. Shorter season hybrids may do a little better.”
Last year Wendland made a crop but nowhere near average. “I cut down about 60 percent of my cotton acreage before harvest,” he says. “I made about one-half to five-eighths of a bale on the rest. Sorghum made from 1,000 to 2,500 pounds per acre. Typically, it’s not hard to make 5,000 pounds of sorghum with normal rainfall. Cotton usually makes one and-three-quarters of a bale.
“In 2011, we did a little better than in 2012, just a little under average. We had about three inches of rain that February that made the crop.”
They have no subsoil moisture for 2013. “I dug 17 corner post holes last week and found moisture in one of them,” he says. “That’s digging down about five to five and-a-half feet.”
He’s also concerned about his cattle operation, which he had developed into an efficient enterprise with a tight calving season and significant use of artificial insemination and embryo transfer. “We had groups of cows timed to calve in a 60-day period,” he says. “We had about an 80 percent embryo transfer rate and after we put in the bulls we got that up to higher than a 90 percent calf crop.”
Heat and drought destroyed those cycles. “Nothing works during prolonged drought. Less than 50 percent of the cows would cycle even with embryo transfer.”
The efficient calving cycles he had developed are now in shambles.”Now, we just get a calf when we get a calf and keep the bulls out there.”
He’s been out of pasture for months. “Cattle are on full feed, and I have enough hay to carry them through September or October, a little longer if we get some crop stubble.”
Wendland has farmed through some dry spells before. He recalls 2006 as a bad one. “But I’ve never gone three years in succession in drought since I’ve been farming.”
Charles Ring says his area of San Patricio County may have “some of the best crops up,” for the time being. He’s one of a few who irrigates. “About 20 percent of our acreage is irrigated,” he says. Some systems have been shut down for repair.
Ring said he likes irrigating cotton if “just to get it up. Then if we get some rain, we can make something.”
He’s making some management adjustments. “I’ve fertilized the grain but not dryland cotton. I can’t justify putting that much money out with the possibility that it won’t come up. I also wonder how much fertilizer is left from last year.”
He says all his dryland cotton is up now, “except for the last 600 to 700 acres planted. I have no dryland corn, just irrigated acreage.”
He also has 128 acres of irrigated sesame.
McCool says the north central part of the county had from an inch to an inch-and-a-half of rain that germinated seeds. “But that’s all it’s had. Fields that were planted early look decent. Part of the county had as much as three inches of rain. Grain looks better but it still needs more moisture. But cotton was planted too late and didn’t emerge.” Cotton planted early was hurt by cool temperatures.
Farmers in South Texas, from the Lower Rio Grande Valley into the Upper Gulf Coast don’t expect normal yields from 2013 crops. Some areas have recently received some rainfall, but too little or too late to count on anything close to normal yields or restoration of forage. For now, they hope to get enough rain to make some yield and to begin to restore pasture and rangeland. Unless they get rain soon, herd liquidation will continue and farmers will rely, once again, on insurance to get them to next season.