Warm-up And Spring Bring Hope For Southwest Farmers, Ranchers

February was one of most bitterly cold periods on record but frozen stuff melts.

Published on: Feb 21, 2011

The first half of February had snow drifts and ice on the ground continually until a warm-up finally came at mid-month in Texas and Oklahoma.

Cold records were set repeatedly on various days in both Texas and Oklahoma, where the combined longevity and severity of the multiple winter storms had not been rivaled in Texas in 112 years since 1899, as the first half of that February still remains in the record books as the coldest period in Texas history. The 2011 storms came as rain, sleet, and snow—leaving a hazardous icepack on bottom.

While ranchers had to deal with getting both feed and water to cattle, the weather was a two-edged sword. The white stuff melts.

WINTER OF NO MERCY: Repeated ice and snow covered much of Texas for half of February, and farmers and ranchers welcomed its eventual melting.
WINTER OF NO MERCY: Repeated ice and snow covered much of Texas for half of February, and farmers and ranchers welcomed its eventual melting.

Before some moisture came the last week of January—and throughout the first half of February—much of Texas was under a burn ban because of severely dry conditions. East Texas got 1-½ to 3 inches of rain in Wood County the last week of January. Clint Perkins, Texas AgriLife Extension agent there, said the moisture got the county on track for 2011, and winter forage has been growing well headed toward springtime. Cattle prices are strong and ranchers are happy.

After that, February moisture helped parched West Texas, and winter wheat fields began to perk up with warmer temperatures and sunshine at mid-month.

With cotton prices reaching 150-year records in the $2 per pound neighborhood, Texas is expected to plant 6,190,000 acres of upland cotton this spring, or an increase of 640,000 acres for the state from last year. Texas is projected to grow roughly half the entire nation's projected upland cotton of 12.3 million acres.

Some areas that haven't grown cotton in many years have rediscovered the crop—especially Central Texas, which was once king of peanut country.

"Until last year, no cotton was planted in Comanche County since 1995," says Whit Weems, Comanche County AgriLife Extension agent.

But a great harvest of the first cotton grown in Comanche County in 15 years has encouraged farmers toward a repeat performance this year. When Weems put together a recent educational meeting on cotton for 2011, a large number of Central Texas farmers turned out—not only from Comanche County but adjacent Eastland and Erath counties, as well.

But is new—or renewed interest—enough to account for the National Cotton Council's estimate that Texas, alone, will grow 640,000 additional cotton acres?

Roger Haldenby, vice president of operations, Plains Cotton Growers, Lubbock, says don't expect that entire 640,000-acre increase to come from up on the High Plains. They already have been planting pretty much at their maximum in cotton acreage for the vast growing region.

"We planted somewhere between 3.4 million and 3.5 million acres of cotton here in 2010," Haldenby says. "I think 200,000 more acres of High Plains cotton is about our limit."

That's true even with cotton prices expected to hold strong through this new crop.

"That's all the land we have available for expansion, unless they plow up the county roads and plant cotton," Haldenby quips.

Oklahoma is projected to make a 14.4% jump in cotton acres, mostly diverted from wheat ground. Although wheat prices have been stronger approaching this spring than a year ago, wheat still is not seen as competitive with cotton.

Some Southwest ranchers also weaned calves earlier than they typically would do to take stress off their mother cows in dealing with the unusually severe cold of this winter. It seems a cold nobody had really expected—at least not so bad.

The La Nina weather cycle typically means a drier and warmer winter. But that certainly wasn't the case with the bitterly cold storms and wet winter.

Mark Fox, National Weather Service (NWS) climatologist for the Dallas region, says there are lots of thoughts on what caused far colder than normal temperatures in a La Nina year, but it's just opinions, conjecture. Nobody knows.

But both the High Plains and Rolling Plains' vast cotton regions will need moisture during March or April to have enough to plant cotton in May and June. The infamous winds of the Southwest can dry out farm and ranch land quickly.

With Texas and Oklahoma known for notoriously wild storm systems from mid- to late spring, "planted" acreage of cotton—much less guesstimates—isn't always as significant as commodity markets perceive. 

"Any farmer will tell you it's not the acres you plant, it's the acres you harvest," Haldenby says.

Or as one old-timer once observed—Texas, with its size and wild storms, can abandon more cotton acreage from weather events than some states can grow.