It’s not uncommon, this time of year, to drive through the Texas Brazos Valley Bottom near College Station and see pockets of bluebonnets and other wildflowers bordering fields prepared for or planted in cotton or sorghum. You don’t expect to see fields of unharvested cotton from the 2018 crop.
Continuous rainfall from September through February, not only prevented some growers from picking last year’s crop but also delays field work and planting for the 2019 season.
“This year we weren't able to get any wheat planted because we had so much rain in the fall,” says Jay Wilder, who grows wheat, cotton, sorghum and soybeans near Snook, Texas. “We've been shredding cotton. We will shred about 350 acres that we didn't get to harvest. We've got insurance, but we'd rather have a harvest— but it's a whole lot better than nothing.”
West of Wilder, his neighbor and 6th generation farmer John Giesenschlag tells Farm Press as he drives by a field of his unharvested cotton, “This was some good cotton — a three-bale year. It was very consistent, but we didn't get to harvest it.”
In another field with about 12 rows of unharvested cotton, Giesenschlag points out, “This was some more of it that I didn't get picked. The quality got so poor; the last of it we picked, and the price was so bad, it almost wasn’t worth it — it got that bad and really discouraging. But this was a good field of cotton here. This place was right on track.”
When the rain first began in September, Giesenschlag described it as, hit or miss. “If you didn't have a lot of acres to get out, some people got 100 percent of their cotton out, and they had a good year.”
But he says others weren’t so lucky, referring to a neighbor who was unable to harvest most of his crop. Giesenschlag had about 200 acres unharvested. “The killer was the yield went down drastically from the beginning of the harvest to the end and then the machines made deep ruts. At the time, you're trying to make a decision, ‘Do we harvest this or not?’ And if I would've known it was going to continue to rain and these ruts we're going to stay full of water all winter and hinder getting the tillage work done, I probably would have said, ‘I'm not going to do this.’”
And yet, if he had made the decision not to harvest and avoid the ruts, Giesenschlag, who also farms with his son R.J., says he would have left 50 percent of his cotton in the field. “Everybody thinks that if you don't harvest, crop insurance kicks in and takes care of all your problems. We all know that's not the case.”
A LOOK BACK
Wilder, who’s starting the 107th year of production on his family farm, says the last two years, having weathered Hurricane Harvey in 2017, have been different and yet the same. “What's disheartening about the last two years is we’ve basically had all our costs in the crop, other than harvest or ginning. In Harvey, we weren't able to harvest maybe 75 acres, which isn't bad. Still, all that rain sprouted milo, the cotton — just a little bit of everything went wrong.
“It’s been pretty trying times.”
But with clear weather and about 3 to 4 inches of subsoil moisture, Wilder and twin boys, Spencer and Jayce, have kicked their field prep into high gear. “Typically, we would have had what we're doing today done in the October-November timeframe. Normally, we'd be working on planters or planting right now but we've got so much fieldwork to get done, we haven't even looked at a planter yet.”
Playing catch-up on damp ground is forcing the Wilders to try things they’ve never done before. “We're going to plant some milo straight into the stalks. Cotton is going behind milo and milo behind cotton. I've never directly planted into an old seedbed. We typically do a lot more conventional tillage but there's been some neighbors up and down the roads who have planted corn that way and it looks like it worked.
“Some fields we've been able to plow half or two thirds or three-fourths of, so the remaining portion, we're going to plant into the stubble. We'll have half of the field one way and half of it another way. We'll know in a month or six weeks if we should have done this differently or if we shouldn't have done it at all. But hopefully, it all works out.”
Giesenschlag, who says he and his employees are stretched thin trying to get the ground ready, recently received a call from a friend asking him what he was doing. “I said, ‘We’re doing fall tillage.’ And he said, ‘It’s spring.’ I said, ‘I know!’
See photo gallery, Brazos Valley Bottom growers forced to shred 2018 cotton
“Normally, I like to have all of my grain sorghum planted by the 15th of March until the 1st of April. This year, my goal is to have it done by the 15th of April. That's what we're hoping for.” But after 2 inches of rain this last weekend, planting may be delayed even more.
A bright spot in the Wilder’s farming operation is cattle. “They’ve done well,” says Wilder, who runs about 500 mama cows along with purebred Limousin or “Limi” cattle. But even the livestock haven’t come through this season unscathed.
“One thing we’ve noticed as we’re wrapping up calving, our calves have been smaller this year. I don't know if you'd attribute that to the wet fall or winter we've had and maybe the nutritional value wasn't there for the cattle, even though we're supplementing with liquid feed and whole cottonseed. But my dad and I felt like the cattle were in as good a shape as they've ever been going into winter, but coming out, they've been pretty rough.”
With the clear weather along with growing grass and clover, Wilder is optimistic they’ll turn around.
Both Giesenschlag and Wilder are candid about the financial toll the last two years have taken on their operations. One admitting the biggest financial loss of his career, the other saying how financially he’s had to do some things differently than he’s ever done before.
But Giesenschlag, who’s about to begin his 51st season, says while it’s easy to focus on the bad times, he tries to focus on the good. “That’s what keeps you going. It’s easy to focus on the bad ones, real easy, and you have to give them plenty of attention, but we do have a lot of good times.”