Rain And Snow Lift Hopes For Southwest Agriculture

With 2012 rolling from the start on a wetter note in Texas and Oklahoma, prospects for cattle, cotton, and wheat look brighter in the Southwest going to spring.

Published on: Feb 21, 2012

After the most extreme drought and heat combination in Texas history in 2011 that was punctuated by wildfires across more than 4 million acres, many parts of the Great Southwest got off to a wet start in 2012.

Rainfall and snow in December spilled over into the New Year, then more rainfall during January followed by some heavy rains as well as hefty snowfalls during February. It brought some smiles, especially to those with winter wheat—either aimed for grain production or just to host stocker cattle for grazing into spring.

"The wheat is holding on here," says Robert Pritz, Taylor County AgriLife Extension agent, Abilene. "The December 2011 rains really bridged the gap to get us where we are now."

IT IS BUSY. With cattle fetching record prices, auction barns are buzzing this year.
IT IS BUSY. With cattle fetching record prices, auction barns are buzzing this year.

If March moisture can follow the February snow and rain, then wheat growers will be set up nicely for April and May, which typically represent spring thunderstorm time.

"April and May rain will make a wheat crop," Pritz says. "But we must have (these) rains to get us there."

Nevertheless, overall the Rolling Plains region has the best chance at a wheat crop in 2012 than it has seen in years.

In the Blacklands of Texas, wheat was progressing well, although some problems have emerged with spider mites attacking some wheat fields.

In the Concho Valley, Hessian flies were reported invading wheat in the San Angelo area.

"We had an outbreak toward the Veribest area on irrigated fields close to voluntary wheat fields," says Texas AgriLife Extension Entomologist Chris Sansone, San Angelo. "We think (Hessian flies) came out of volunteer wheat onto the irrigated wheat fields."

It's always a good idea for wheat growers to destroy volunteer wheat to control the Hessian fly and other pests too.

Paul Minzenmayer, a Runnels County wheat and cotton grower at Rowena, Texas, says he selects his wheat varieties based on resistance to Hessian fly. He plants Coronado wheat and the Duster wheat variety from Oklahoma State University, which are both resistant to the Hessian fly. Duster also is drought-resistant.

Cotton growers ready

In much of Texas, entire communities are dependent on the cotton industry. After an extremely disappointing 2011 drought-driven year where about 4.5 million of more than 7.5 million acres of Texas cotton was abandoned—only to take 3 million acres to harvest—it appears Texans producers are ready to try it again.

In its February survey of the entire Cotton Belt, the National Cotton Council predicted that all U.S. cotton plantings in 2012 will reach 13.6 million acres, down 7.5% from last year.

Meanwhile, the NCC projects Texas will plant 7.1 million acres of cotton this year, down from the fence-to-fence 7.5 million acres Texas planted last year. (Just about anywhere there was a bare spot for cotton).

Nevertheless, the Texas acreage still would represent more than half the U.S. cotton acres this year.

Dr. Gary Adams, NCC vice president for Economics & Policy Analysis, says the Southwest region cotton production will hinge on whether drought prevails or wet weather returns this spring for Texas and Oklahoma.

In any case, there's ample cotton in the world. The Council expects that unless there are major global weather problems, world carryover stocks at the end of this current marketing year will reach 64.1 million bales, which is a hefty amount of global cotton ending stocks.

Adams says it is important to remember than as much as 30% of those stocks could be held in China's government reserves.

He notes how China implements its cotton reserves policy is the "single largest wildcard in the cotton market."

On the vast Texas High Plains where cotton is king, irrigated cotton and dryland acres typically are evenly split. That means of 4 million acres that is usually planted there in the Lubbock region, about 2 million acres is irrigated cotton and 2 million dryland.

But fears that a dry season might eventually return may change that this year.

Mark Kelley, Texas AgriLife Extension cotton specialist, Lubbock, says he expects there actually may be more dryland cotton in 2012 there.

Rickey Bearden, a veteran Plains, Texas cotton grower, says he will switch some of his cotton production that was on very limited irrigation over to dryland production this year.

Others with limited water are converting more cotton to drip irrigation.

Some Texas corn growers also are making the switch to drip.

David Carthel, a Parmer County, Texas corn grower, already found success during the drought –plagued 2011 crop year with drip irrigation, helping him survive the dry conditions, extreme heat, and relentless winds.

He notes his cornfield fared much better than his other fields on sprinklers or other irrigation methods last year. He attributes that to drip putting the moisture directly where the plant needs it in the root zone. Carthel's drip-irrigated cornfield yielded 30% better than his fields using other irrigation methods.

Cattle and wildlife

With the total inventory of U.S. cattle and calves at its tightest supply in 60 years, and strong demand for beef, producers already are seeing record prices for cattle in 2012.

David Anderson, Texas AgriLife Extension livestock marketing economist, College Station, says the 90.8 million head on Jan. 1 was 2% below the 92.7 million on Jan. 1 last year. It also represented the lowest inventory of all cattle and calves since the 88.1 million on hand in 1952.

Texas' cow herd also dropped greatly because of the drought. The state saw a decline in 2011 in the number of beef cows of 660,000, down to 4.3 million head.

"That's the smallest cow herd since 1960," Anderson says.

"The Southwest region, which is Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, slaughtered almost 200,000 more beef cows in 2011 than the year before," he observes. "Nationwide, beef cow slaughter numbers were up 170,000 head. And also fewer heifers were held back to enter the cow herds due to the dry conditions. Each of these contributed to the Texas's smaller cow herd."

Randy Carson, president of Abilene Livestock Auction, says the weekly Tuesday sales have been powerful. Carson notes cattle there have been fetching record prices, including the lightweight animals.

Beyond cattle, Texas AgriLife Extension Wildlife Specialist Dr. Dale Rollins says wildlife enthusiasts and outdoorsmen (which often mix with cattle on many Texas ranches) are just elated with the return of moisture in 2012 whether it has been rain, sleet, or snow.

"Despite some long-range weather forecasts which proffered a lingering La Nina event (cooler Pacific waters and less rain), this winter has been wetter than expected," Rollins notes. "Most areas are wetter now than they've been in the past 15 months."

Rollins says this winter's moisture in Texas has been just what the doctor ordered for wildlife.

The renowned wildlife specialist, columnist, and highly sought-after speaker notes when you get down to the bottom line, what's good for farmers is great for wildlife too.

"I root for both the wheat and the cotton farmers. If we have had a wet fall and spring, the wheat farmers do well, and summer rains put smiles on the faces of cotton farmers," Rollins allows. "When both groups have good years, it's also been a good year for deer, quail, turkeys, and most other critters."