Texas leads the nation in both cotton and cattle, but production of each is on a downtrend as cotton is not as attractive as some other crops and rebuilding cattle numbers has be stymied by the relentless drought.
U.S. cotton producers are expected to plant just 9.01 million acres of all cotton this spring, down a whopping 26.8% from 2012 acreage. Upland cotton intentions make up 8.81 million acres, down 27%.
According to the National Cotton Council survey, Texas and Southwest cotton growers are following that trend with 5.23 million intended acres for this year, down 24.4% from last year.
The biggest reason given by Texas/Southwest respondents was that they intend to shift acres from cotton to more attractive grain sorghum, wheat, and corn, in that order. Once a stepchild of cotton—used mainly for a rotation crop—sorghum has emerged as a more important and profitable crop, especially with its progress made for ethanol production in the renewable fuels industry.
But a big factor in how much cotton Texas finally produces this year will be the weather as many producers are experiencing their third year of drought.
"Whether it ever starts to rain here again will be the big factor in how much cotton we produce," says Randall Conner, executive vice president of the Southern Rolling Plains Cotton Growers Association, Winters, Texas.
Conner notes that heading toward spring growers are experiencing a horrific deficit in subsoil moisture. Some growers were unable to plant cotton last year, and communities (and cotton gins) that hinge their economies on cotton can't afford to see that again.
But with rain—even with far fewer acres—his region still could produce a good cotton crop this season, especially since the boll weevil has long been out of the picture as a production culprit. The Southern Rolling Plains zone was the first in Texas to eradicate the weevil.
Gary Adams, National Cotton Council vice president, agrees on how so much hinges on the weather.
"Planted acreage is just one variable determining final production," Adams emphasizes. "Weather is often a more significant determinant, particularly weather developments in the southwestern U.S. With this in mind, we could see the U.S. crop ranging from a low of 9.5 million bales to a high of 17 million bales."
John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas A&M University Regents Professor and Texas State Climatologist, doesn't give much long-term hope for a big general return to heavy and frequent rainfall. Nielsen-Gammon says it is more likely the best producers can hope for is a neutral weather scenario this season.
Nielsen-Gammon notes that El Nino, a warming of temperatures of the Pacific Ocean surface water—which typically means more rainfall—failed to live up to its earlier expectations and just fizzled out.
But La Nina, a cooling of ocean surface temperatures that largely resulted in the historic drought in Texas in 2011 and also dry conditions in 2012, may not be the driving force in 2013, either.
Instead, he says, the Tropics look neutral for 2013. He notes that means cotton growers, along with other farmers and ranchers, shouldn't expect a return to a wet year, but more of a neutral growing season this spring and summer.
Of course, El Nino and La Nina weather cycles are not the only factors that can affect the climate, Nielsen-Gammon adds. He said large volcanic eruptions, dust in the atmosphere, ground cover—or lack of it of land—and other factors all can impact weather and rainfall.
In addition to the Pacific, the Atlantic Ocean also can bring major weather changes to U.S. cotton-growing regions.
Cattle numbers plunge
U.S. cattle numbers continue to decline, and Texas certainly is following that trend, according to a USDA inventory report.
Texas has experienced a 22% decline over the past 3 years, notes Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service livestock specialist Dr. David Anderson, College Station.
Continued drought in 2012 took another year's toll on the nation's cowherd, according to the latest USDA report, Anderson points out.
USDA reported that the U.S. had the smallest cattle herd since 1952. The 89.3 million cattle in the U.S. on Jan. 1 were 1.4 million fewer than last year."
The drought that just won't turn loose its grip caused the Texas cattle herd to shrink again, Anderson says, as the state now has the fewest cattle since the 1950s.
"Just over 4 million beef cows were reported in Texas on Jan. 1," he said. "Texas has lost over 1 million beef cows in the last year years, representing a 22% decline in cow numbers. Ranchers across the U.S. and Texas reported that they held more young females, or heifers, to begin to replace the cows lost. Nationwide, 2 percent more heifers were kept compared to the year before."
Anderson does not expect the beef supply situation to change in 2013, with the overall smallest U.S. cattle herd in 60 years.
"Where are we headed in 2013? I think again we will contend with tighter supplies of cattle, high feed costs, but hopefully, drought recovery to go with it," Anderson says.
Anderson says to expect tight supplies of calves and for prices to remain high for 2013.
"I think that will be due to tighter supplies of cattle and the potential is there for a possible record high corn crop if we get the rain in the Midwest," Anderson says.
But the U.S. hay production and supplies are at a record low. USDA reports the two-plus years of drought have taken an enormous toll on the nation's hay production. USDA reported U.S. hay production in 2012 was 120 million tons, down nearly 18% from the 2006 through 2010 average.
Taylor County, Texas rancher Steve Stockton is in his third year of dealing with merciless drought and record heat south of Abilene.
Stockton is trying to survive, rotating his cattle herd from place to place, feeding some minerals, and good hay, and he's just glad that going into this spring he still had stock tanks with some water for livestock. Many ranchers do not.
Stockton is just glad he didn't sell all his hay for cash flow during the drought period.
You can see Stockton's story in "Drought Survivor" in the March 2013 issue of The Farmer-Stockman.