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Current drought has unique features: Part 2

PLENTY OF WIND has been available to keep windmills turning in West Texas this spring But water has been in short supply
West Texas farmers are facing one of the toughest droughts they’ve seen in a long time. But it may not be the worst they’ve seen. Drought of 2011 has unique features.

West Texas farmers Don Marble, Don Langston and Bill Gilbreath have seen some bad drought years over their long careers—each spanning more than 50 years. And they agree that the one they’re dealing with now is among the worst and comes with some unique characteristics.

All three agree that the current drought might not be as bad as those of the ‘50’s, the 1944 or 1945 drought or the one that hit in 1980. But they all say that the current one has some unique characteristics.

“This drought is not worse than the ‘50’s droughts,” Marble says. “But I don’t recall ever seeing this kind of hot weather and high winds that dry out everything. We can water a crop and in two days it’s all gone.”

He says last year was similar to 1951. “Then in 1952 we got no rain and we got no rain in 1956.”

Langston says the heat and wind combination make this drought especially hard. “The hot wind feels like a blast furnace,” he says. “Wind has been blowing at 20 to 25 miles per hour all day long and gusting to 50 miles per hour. It doesn’t take long for that hot wind to burn cotton if we haven’t been sand-fighting. I see dust devils everywhere.

“Even with irrigation, the heat and wind pull water out of the soil and burn the plants a little.  Everyone knew it was going to be dry when they planted and they cut as many corners as they could,” he says.

“For this time of year, conditions are as bad as I’ve ever seen.”

In 1998, conditions were “about as close to 2011 as any I remember,” he says. “We had a combination of heat, wind and drought. We had a lot of 100-degree days and a lot of wind that summer.”

“I have never seen it blow like this,” Gilbreath says, “and I’ve been here 80 years, except for four years in the service.”

He’s farmed on his own for 57 years. “I farmed in 1949 and 1950, then went in service for four years and have been here ever since. I’m going to make another crop. I don’t plan on retiring.”

They plant a combination of irrigated and dryland cotton. They expect nothing from the dryland fields this year.

“I planted a lot of dryland cotton,” Marble says. “None of it is up. It will not come up; it’s too late. And we have thousands and thousands of acres in the area that will be lost.”

“Dryland acreage will make nothing,” Langston says. “It’s already nearly too late.” He says his son-in-law has about 55 percent of the acreage planted dryland.

Irrigated cotton will not perform up to usual standards either, they say. “Most all of our irrigated cotton is up,” Gilbreath says. “It should be alright if we can keep it wet but I don’t know if we can.”

“Our irrigated cotton is up,” Marble says, “but if it doesn’t rain it will be hurt. We’ve been making two or three bales per acre but we might be proud to make just over a bale this year.”

They say the heat and wind dry the soil out almost as soon as they can apply water.

Langston says his son-in-law is switching from sprinkler irrigation hoses to drag hoses every other row, to conserve water.

Marble says planting a half a circle in cotton and half in wheat helps conserve water. “And no-till helps. We are using a lot of no-till.”

They are also running sand fighters to diminish damage from wind and blowing sand. “We’ve been over all the irrigated acreage,” Langston says. “We’re trying to sand fight dryland fields.”

They talk about how long this drought has persisted and all say they’ve had no appreciable rainfall since last July.

“We’ve had barely one inch of rain since October,” Langston says. “We got about a half-inch October 21, two-tenths about May 7 or 8 and three-tenths last week.”

“We’ve had no significant rain in South Plains since last July,” Marble says, “so we haven’t had rain in almost a year.”

One of the most unique aspects of the 2011 drought is that farmers have never had a dry spell this bad with cotton selling for nearly $1.30 a pound. Marble says he sold a little cotton for a bit better than $1.50 a pound last year. “I contracted about two/thirds at what seemed like a good price at the time,” he says.

He turned down one offer of 99.5 cents a pound. “I told them I had to have $1 a pound because I’d never sold dollar cotton before,” he says. He got it. “Later it went to $1.25 and then I sold some for $1.55, I think.”

They’ll rely on crop insurance to make up part of what they would get if they could make a full crop this year.

“We could contract now for about $1.30 a pound,” Langston says. “But we have good insurance coverage and the guarantee of $1.23 a pound will help. That’s up from 72 cents last year.”

They also get help this year on loss of cottonseed revenue.

Marble says the prolonged drought and likely abandonment of many thousands of acres—some estimates predict losing up to 2 million acres of dryland cotton—will affect more than just the farmers struggling to make this crop.

This drought will hurt our infrastructure,” he says. “The boys who are spraying and fertilizing will be hurt.” Gins and other support industries also will suffer from lost acreage and reduced production on the acres that remain.

Langston says cotton continues to be the best option for the area “year in and year out.”

The three have been through tough times before and agree that hanging on is the best they can do. “We may not make two or three bales an acre this year,” Langston says. “But I want to know that I gave it everything I had. I’ve seen some similar droughts but I got through them and kept on going.”

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