Just a drop of water?

The big cotton story of 2011 was the extended drought in Texas. The big story of 2012 may be how growers will come back from that drought.

The reason that is the big story, at least at the beginning of the planting season, is that Texas is probably the only Cotton Belt state that alone produces enough cotton to influence prices significantly for everyone.

“It was a once-in-100-years type thing,” says Jackie G. Smith, a Texas A&M professor and Extension economist, speaking of the severe 2011 drought. “At least we hope that is the case. We had the lowest rainfall ever recorded for this area. We had record heat and we had record winds, too.”

Key Points

Drought hindered cotton in 2011 and prices reacted correspondingly.

Drought could continue to inhibit cotton in 2012, particularly in the South.

Winners in 2012 could be growers who get favorable weather.


Smith is based in the Lubbock area, where growers in 2011 made “practically zero dryland cotton,” he says. “Compare that to the fact we generally have 2.5 [million] to 3 million acres of dryland cotton in this area.” In addition to dryland cotton, that area of Texas typically has another 2.5 million acres of irrigated cotton.

For all types of cotton and in all parts of Texas, about 3.85 million bales of cotton were produced in 2011. Those numbers are from the Nov. 1 USDA Crop Production Report, and they are down about 4 million bales from 2010’s 7.84 million bales. And that was a year growers went into thinking they would increase production. Instead, they more than halved it.

Time heals all wounds?

Many growers across the country have been thinking conditions would normalize in that region over the winter, and that Texas growers would pull out of the drought in 2012.

“We haven’t pulled out of it,” says John Robinson, a Texas A&M University professor and Extension cotton marketing specialist, based at College Station. “In fact, right now I’m looking at a picture from the U.S. Drought Monitor, as of Feb. 14, and there are parts of Texas that are worse off than they were at this time last year.”

Robinson says the La Niña weather condition creates these droughts. “However, the present one we are in doesn’t appear to be as strong as the La Niña condition of 2011,” he adds. “And, as of last week [week of Feb. 14], NOAA is forecasting this current La Niña condition might dissipate by May. If that was to happen, then maybe, maybe, we would have normal weather and it might rain a few times.”

A great deal of production around College Station is in dryland cotton. “If we do get a couple of good rains that are kind of spread out, that could make all the difference,” Robinson says.

The National Cotton Council surveys growers annually to assess planting intensions. The 2012 numbers were released Feb. 11. Perhaps surprisingly, while signaling lowered intentions, Texas growers are far from cutting upland cotton production as much as most other cotton states.

In the Southwest, upland cotton producers plan to cut production by 5.3%. But the Southeast is cutting upland production by 12.8%, the Mid-South will lower upland production by 6.9% and the far West will cut upland cotton production by 10.4%. That seems to indicate the marketing situation, rather than the weather forecast, is having the most influence on Texans.

Although the drought is still ongoing, and although they’ve only had a little help in moisture over the winter, Smith says growers seem to be meeting the new season with some confidence.

“We’ve had a little moisture, and some areas have had enough rain to where they can work their land,” he says. “Some areas, say 40 to 50 miles east of Lubbock, have had an average amount of rain for this time of year, maybe more. But that is a small part of this area. Still, growers are not sitting completely without moisture for three or four months like they were last year.”

Adding it up

Growers in the deep South and the Mid-South are also generally cutting cotton acres significantly. According to the NCC report, Florida growers will trim upland cotton by 10% in 2012; Louisiana growers plan to slash cotton by nearly 18%; and Arkansas growers expect to be down 9%.

In spite of the fact that they had a better year in 2011 than might have been expected, Georgia growers will cut upland cotton by 12.7% this year.

“From a production standpoint we couldn’t say we had a miraculous year in 2011, but we certainly had a better year than we thought we would have,” says Don Shurley, a University of Georgia cotton economist.

“We started out the year extremely dry in May and June. We had to replant a lot of our crop because of poor emergence. In some cases we were still planting cotton in the first week of July.

“… But in the end, our state average was just a little over 800 pounds to the acre. We had some farmers that made three bales or more with irrigated cotton, and we had some farms that did extremely well with nonirrigated cotton as well.”

Shurley believes as long as the price of cotton is above 90 cents per pound, farmers will think positively about the price.

“When I talk to growers, I tell them to try and get caught up and get at least 20% to 25% priced while we are above 90 cents,” Shurley says. “A lot of them are already at that point or plan to get there. I think the move is good. Obviously, we are not at $1.50 to $2 per pound like we used to be, but we didn’t stay there very long, anyway. Frankly, a lot of farmers didn’t have a lot of cotton to sell when we did get to that point.”

If Georgia growers do substantially cut cotton acreage, the reason is most likely to be stiff competition from other crop options. Shurley says peanuts are giving cotton a tough run for the money this year, both in Georgia and in the Carolinas. In Georgia, corn prices are also good competition.

Good start, lackluster finish

In Virginia and the Carolinas, 2011 was a frustrating year, says Ames Herbert, a Virginia Tech entomologist who also works with Virginia Tech’s cotton variety trials program.

Herbert says the 2011 cotton year started out really strong in his area, with good rains, and cotton had good yield potential going into the summer. Then Hurricane Irene’s winds hit, flattening a lot of cotton and twisting up much of what was left. That was followed by two or three weeks of overcast, wet weather, depriving cotton of needed heat units.

“We had a lot of hard luck,” Herbert notes. “We estimate we probably lost a couple of hundred pounds of lint per acre from what we were potentially expecting. Before all that, we were thinking we were looking at a record for us, or near a record. We were knocked back from what may have been a 900-pound-plus average to a 700-pound-plus average. There were still some good fields, but the damage was pretty extensive. Thank goodness the prices were strong.”

NCC stats indicate South Carolina will cut cotton by 10%, North Carolina will be down 11.3%, and Virginia growers intend to cut cotton acres by 16%.

California depends on water

As is the case in Texas, water, or the lack of it, could be the biggest influence in California cotton production this year, notes Bob Hutmacher, University of California Cooperative Extension cotton specialist based in Five Points.

“The big factor here is going to be water availability,” Hutmacher says. “That is kind of the wild card. We don’t do dryland cotton production here. Virtually all the cotton we produce is fully irrigated.”

So far this year water is relatively short, but that could change.

“Our rainy season is pretty much October through early April, so we still have some time,” Hutmacher says. “In the past when we’ve had wonderful springs that sort of rescued our water supply — we’ve called it our ‘Miracle March.’ The way it is looking, it is shaping up that we are needing a Miracle March … or else water supply is going to be tight.”

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NOT LACKING CONFIDENCE: Jackie G. Smith, professor and economist, Texas A&M University, says Texas growers feel confident about cotton, although an increase in moisture over the winter has been relatively minor.

This article published in the April, 2012 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.