Cotton farmers from Central Texas, down to the Brazos Bottoms, over to the Coastal Bend, into the Lower Rio Grande Valley and northwest to the Winter Garden area stop short of predicting a bumper crop, but a recent whirlwind tour of the area showed more than a few fields that would push two bales per acre on dryland production and an occasional three-bale potential.

All this despite some early-season weather problems, either too much rain or too little, and a growing season that stretched the limits of growers' patience and plants' tolerance for extremes. Brandon Roznovak, a young, third-generation farmer from Hutto, about an hour's drive east of Austin, expects to make close to 1,400 pounds per acre on some of his better fields this year, “weather permitting. Fields on land I've farmed for the first time this year will make about 700 pounds.” The crop has better chances than he expected early.

“Planting conditions were terrible,” Roznovak said. “It did not rain. We planted corn in muddy conditions and then we went 79 days without rain.” He said cotton went through a lot of “erratic conditions during the growing season. It got wet and we couldn't spray and we had a lot of winter weeds, which got all our underground moisture.” A few timely rains kept the crop going and he hopes to average “enough to pay expenses and be able to plant again next year. When I get some of this new land into my system I expect yields to improve.”

E.L. Bradford, who farms near Hearne, Texas, said a rainy winter kept him from working his land the way he wanted to but he's pleased with crop prospects. Bradford watered most of his cotton three times, with furrow irrigation. Some areas got only one application, but he said those areas have heavier soils that hold moisture better and will likely yield close to the sandier soils that got more water.

Bradford expects a good portion of his crop to top two bales and he may get three out of some fields. He also raises cotton on 3,500 acres in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and says that crop also looks promising.

John Malazzo farms near Bradford and rotates 1,000 acres each of corn and cotton. He irrigates part of his crop and watered cotton twice this year. “We went 108 days with no rain,” he said. Despite the weather, he expects a good cotton crop.

“Rotation helps in dry years,” he said. “Organic matter from the corn helps hold moisture and the longer we rotate, the better the soil becomes.”

First crop

Jimmy Killebrew farms just a few miles from Malazzo and is putting in the first crop he's grown on his own. He worked for the Buffalo Ranch until it was sold and he started out on his own. Killebrew watered cotton twice, once in early July and again later in the month. “Cotton never really suffered,” he said. “We had no rain until June but we got showers all month, probably four or five inches total.” He said a few showers in July helped make the crop.

“We got some timely rains. I think this will be a good crop. It's looked good all year long.” Down in the Coastal Bend, Chip Meyer said moisture ran to both extremes during the season. “We were extremely dry early. Planting conditions were not good and we had some stands that were borderline, but we did not have to replant.”

Farmers in the area worried that Hurricane Claudette would catch cotton at a vulnerable stage and significantly reduce yield potential. “We had some high winds but it caused no significant damage,” Meyer said. He expects fields to push two bales per acre.

Paul Wleczyk, Rosenberg, Texas, says two-bale cotton is possible this year, “but I had two-bale cotton in the field two years in a row and didn't pick nearly that much.” Wleczyk said harvesttime storms pounded his crops the last two years and he knows his coastal location makes the crop vulnerable every year.

“We had a seven-inch rain and a lot of wind on last year's crop and it ruined the cotton.” Randy Zrubek, a crop consultant near Corpus Christi, expects the area crop to “be a little short. We usually make two-bale cotton, but we will not see much of that this year. We usually have some fields that push three-bales but none of those are likely.”

Zrubek said conditions were too dry early and Claudette caught some fields. “We dodged a bullet with Claudette, though,” he said. “We may have lost about 30 percent of potential yield, but it could have been a lot worse. In some fields, we had three-bale potential, based on boll count. Current counts indicate a two-bale crop.”

He said the storm-damaged cotton from Highway 35 south to the coast, around Bay City and over to Port LaVaca. “The closer to the coast the cotton was the more damage it had.” In Kingsville, Earnest Bippert went 80 days without rain but following a minimum tillage program helped his cotton survive the drought and as he finished harvesting his 1,000-acre cotton crop he expected to see a good crop.

Ovi Atkinson farms in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and plants 2,500 acres of cotton near Harlingen, 500 irrigated. Atkinson also had a bad start for planting. In late August Atkinson had some 500 acres left in the field, a bit later than usual for harvest, but yield prospects appeared better than it has been for several years. A few timely rains in season made the crop, Atkinson said. He's also convinced that a corn rotation improves yield potential.

Winter Garden crop

“We always plant cotton behind milo.” “The Winter Garden cotton crop looks like a good one, but we're a little late,” said Billy Wagner, Helena Branch Manager, Uvalde and Hondo, Texas.

“Almost all of our cotton is irrigated by a mixture of center pivot, linear systems and row water,” Wagner said. “For the last two years, we've had good cotton despite terrible weather conditions. This year is another dose of that, plus worms.”

He said a lot of rain in late June and July, and tremendous worm pressure during that same period threatened the crop. “We dealt with pressures as high as 20 to 100 percent worms in blooms. Conventional cotton had at least two more worm applications than normal.

Most Bollgard cotton was not sprayed for bollworms. The little that was sprayed had only one to two applications.” Kevin Cavanaugh, a Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Co. representative who works the Central and South Texas region, said farmers persevered through a challenging season and most are making decent yields. “Most farmers in the Eastern half of Texas got off to a terrible start,” he said. “Planting conditions were extremely dry, but the crop this year showed me that cotton can hang on longer than I sometimes expect it to.” He said South Texas and into the Valley was wet early. “A lot of farmers had to replant but cotton hung in and made a pretty good crop.”

Cavanaugh said most areas in his region got some rain in June “they often do not get. That saved us.” He says throughout the area, farmers are looking at an average crop. The Brazos Bottoms and the Corpus Christi area may have an above-average crop.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com