Cotton grower Tom Lahey realizes that he, like many High Plains farmers, lives in a world of diminishing returns. Lahey, from Moscow, Kansas, believes cotton is the answer for farmers struggling with a dwindling supply of irrigation water and increasing production costs.

“We’ve grown record yielding irrigated cotton with a season of just 4 to 6 inches of water, while irrigated corn needs at least 12 to 14 inches,” Lahey said.

Lahey said he and Jerry Stuckey, whose land he farms, were the first two farmers to grow cotton in this southwest Kansas area. In 2000, they each planted 40 acres.

The next year, they each planted 600 acres of cotton. Some neighbors planted cotton, too. In 2001, farmers around Moscow planted 4,500 acres of cotton. All had to be hauled to a gin at Hereford.

Not too pleased with their commuting problem, Lahey, Stuckey and three other farmers, Bob Davis, Randy Lucas and Jay Garetson, decided to build their own cotton gin.

They broke ground on a $3.2 million gin in Jan. 2002. It was completed that Oct. then doubled in size in 2004 with an upgrade in electronics.

They enjoyed two straight years of record yields. The current situation is a lot different.

“We had exceptionally dry weather in May,” Lahey said. “We planted most of our cotton early in the month and it really got dry by May 24. In June, this county, Seward, got just less than one inch of rain. We didn't get any general rains.”

In early July, southwestern Kansas, as well as a large portion of the high plains received from 3 to 4 inches of general rain. Consequently, Lahey and Stuckey believe they’ll get some good yields in the Moscow area.

“If conditions stay hot and we get a rain by early August, we could get something like 800 pounds per acre yields for dryland cotton and 1,200 pounds for irrigated cotton,” Stuckey, manager of the Northwest Cotton Growers Gin, said.

He’s counting on 4,800 acres of dryland cotton for the gin at Moscow and 33,000 acres of irrigated cotton. If it had rained in May, he believes he would have ginned a lot more dryland cotton.

Lahey has 1,700 acres of dryland cotton and 3,500 acres of cotton under center pivot irrigation. Like most high plains cotton farmers, he’s using mostly hairy-leafed varieties, expecting greater resistance to 2,4-D drift damage, a recurring problem in that area.

He is using Stoneville 2448, Deltapine 2145, 2140 and 113.

Because he believes farmers are becoming better educated and more responsible with herbicides, he’s trying some semi-smooth-leaf varieties this year.

Lahey and other High Plains cotton farmers use no-till for dryland acreage and strip-till for irrigated circles.

“We must conserve our ground moisture,” Lahey said. “And with the extremely high costs of fuel for running farm equipment and irrigation pumps, no-till is proving itself.”

High Plains farmers will look even closer at cotton in the future for its decreased need for irrigation water compared to corn and milo, Lahey said, although southwest Kansas will soon have at least four new ethanol plants. Corn likely will be the primary source for ethanol and more acreage could go in when plants come on line, Stuckey said.

“Farmers are taking irrigation water from 400 foot to 600 foot deep wells in the Ogallala aquifer now,” he said. “When farmers with big wells pump more water, they take away what the smaller wells can provide. When they start growing enough corn to feed the ethanol plants, we will see a real draw down on water.”