South of Lawton on I-44 then west on the two-lane to Faxon and Chattanooga the difference a few inches of rainfall make becomes apparent. North of Lawton and Fort Sill, the right-of-way along the four-lane is covered with lush, green grass where highway mowing crews are busy trimming a summer's worth of foliage to a manageable level.
Cattle graze on green pasture and a new wheat crop emerges after receiving badly-needed rains.
Traveling south and west toward the rural community of Faxon, fields marked by grain drill rolls where winter wheat has been planted are still dusty and bare. In other fields, fractured cotton bolls cover the ground where a shredder has destroyed a drought-stunted crop after a crop insurance adjustor paid the producers a few cents per pound to partly reimburse him the dollars the crop cost him to plant.
Rainfall, not enough by any means, but enough to make a difference, fell north and east of Lawton. South and west, like some mean spirit dictated it, the clouds blew over, dropping only a small amount of moisture.
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Pockets of green remain in isolated places such as west of the Red River cotton gin, south of Frederick. Owned by the producers who make up the Tillman County Producers Cooperative, the gin has undergone an equipment makeover to get ready for the upcoming cotton harvest. People seeking seasonal work with the gin during cotton harvest stand in the office filling out job application forms.
Asked when the ginning season will begin, Lynn Scalf, gin manager, frowns and thinks for a minute before replying: "Well, we could receive some irrigated cotton as soon as next week. Producers have been applying chemicals to their cotton to be able to get their harvesters going more quickly."
For the dryland crop, Scalf says it may be two or more weeks before that part of the harvest begins. A drop in the cotton market—caused by a glut of cotton around the world and extreme drought conditions—convinced farmers to plant fewer acres. USDA estimates Oklahoma cotton farmers planted only 185,000 acres this year and only 170,000 acres are expected for harvest.
That’s way off from the 450,000 acres planted in 2010 and 300,000 acres a year later. And many acres of that will be destroyed for crop insurance.
Recently planted winter canola is beginning to show up in fields in Tillman County and across the wheat-belt of the state. Canola crop experts like Gene Neuens, who works for the Producers Cooperative Oil Mill in Oklahoma City, expects a record 400, 000 to 500,000 acres to be planted this fall.
Others, like Ron Sholar, executive director of the Oklahoma Oilseed Commission, are more conservative in their estimates.
"There may be more, but I expect around 300,000 acres to be planted this year," Sholar said. A final, accurate figure should be available before October ends, he said.
Most of Oklahoma benefited from a cool, fairly wet summer, the first in three years of severe drought, but September ended with an extended dry spell which lowered expectations for an early winter wheat crop to help farmers graze calves on wheat for an important extra source of income.
Oklahoma State University Extension wheat specialist Jeff Edwards estimates 50 percent of the winter wheat crop has been planted. A dry September prevented wheat farmers from planting more early, he said.
"'The lateness of the crop may affect the availability of wheat pasture this year," he said. "We really didn't have the moisture we needed in the top 4 to 6 inches to get that crop out of the ground. We didn't have all that much wheat to in the ground that month so I don't know how much wheat pasture we are going to have this year.
"It is looking like wheat pasture could be pretty tight if we have anything close to a normal fall or winter when it cools."
A few pockets of wheat country did receive ample rain and may have a good chance for wheat pasture, he said.
"One good area may be near Okarche,” he said. “Jackson and Tillman counties, which normally have a lot of wheat pasture, are still dry and their prospects are minimal."
Wheat needs rain
Rains will be necessary throughout the winter to maintain subsoil moisture at optimum levels.
Due to the continuing warm, dry weather, Edwards encourages farmers to watch for grasshoppers and armyworms feeding on young wheat plants.
"As other foliage begins to die and turn brown with the approach of winter, pests are looking for green plants to eat.
“Weeds are the number one problem many farmers will have in their wheat crop," he said. Italian and feral rye are bad news for wheat farmers.
"It is important to control weeds when they are small and young," he said. "You are much better off to kill those weeds in the fall before they use up any of the nitrogen fertilizer. Water, sunlight and applied nutrients are there for your wheat crop, not for the weeds."
Edwards and other OSU Extension specialists also encourage wheat farmers to grow winter canola in rotation with wheat to reduce weed infestation.