"Everything is better when you get rainwater," says cotton producer Kay White. But for the last two years, rainfall has been sparse on her Dawson County, Texas, farms. In 2020, White never received an inch of rainfall at one time. In fact, she only acquired 6 inches for the year.
"There was no lake water or tank water anywhere in the last two years until the last two weeks," White says, who's received 5.5 inches of rain, "pretty consistently" since mid-May on her farms.
But it's been a challenging year. "The weather's given us rain in spots and too much in others and not any in other places. We started out so dry and now have moisture to plant but the wind and the heat are keeping the crops from utilizing the moisture."
For 58 years, White has been farming irrigated and dryland cotton on the sandy soils of Key, Texas. Drought in her region is nothing new but she says this year is by far the hardest.
"It's probably dryer this year than it was in 2010," she says. "2010 was really dry. We started out to make a good crop and it just didn't rain. And we tried to run pivots and water and you couldn't keep it wet—kind of like this year -- the wind blew, and it was dry, and it didn't turn out good."
White rotates her cotton ground with wheat. Due to the drought, she's cutting her irrigated acres in half this year, "unless the weather changes immensely.
"I'm only going to call one circle irrigated and the other dryland. We've gotten these good rains, but we have nothing in the profile, so if we don’t get rain in June, July and August, we don’t have enough water to irrigate."
White will concentrate inputs such as fertilizer and water on her irrigated acres, while her dryland acres will be a 'wait and see.'
"Now, if we get rain and can get it up, and in two weeks we get another good rain, then I'll probably fertilize and water this dryland and see what happens with it," she says.
In her nearly 60 years of farming, White says she's never had a year where she's making decisions day-by-day. "We're so dry, you can't plan and then you get these spotted rains and you can't finish the field you were on and you have to go somewhere else. It's been very challenging, mostly due to the wind."
A pilot and a farm girl
White grew up on the family farm. "I always told my mother, 'I won't be working in this hot field when I grow up.'" She never left.
"I grew up right here on the place where I live. My husband and I got married in 1960 and started farming in 61 and farmed until he passed away in 2018. He was an aerial applicator for 47 years," White says of her late husband Benny.
"When we got our first ag airplane in 1972, I flagged and we farmed. I drove a tractor and he drove a tractor. We flew and farmed."
As Benny purchased newer airplanes with improved technology including GPS, White says she no longer flagged but worked from home overseeing the farms. "We had employees who did the tractor driving and when Benny wasn't flying, he was in the tractor," she says.
Today, White farms with her son Kenny and four employees. Although, White and her son have their own land and equipment, she says they work together.
In the last 20 years, irrigation in Dawson County has become supplemental. Limited rainfall and a declining Ogallala Aquifer have necessitated the need for increased irrigation efficiency.
"When my daddy drilled the first well here in 1953, we ditch-watered with tubes. Then we went from there to 5-inch hand move, sprinkler lines. When Benny and I started farming, we had what we called drag pipe. They had skids on the bottom, and you hooked them onto the bottom of a tractor and pulled them. From there we went to side rolls, which was wheels that had a motor, and from there to pivots, which are the most water efficient."
When White's father started irrigating, he had car engines and turbine pumps that pumped the water. "Then as the water fell off and changed and we pumped more out of it, we went to submersible pumps. Those are more efficient," she adds.
In addition to pivots, White also has 50-60-acre blocks of drip irrigation.
As the Ogallala Aquifer declines, White says their water quality is as well. "I'm seeing more salt. It makes your ground harder and your crops don't grow as well," White says.
She's tried several things to combat the issue. "You try to plant wheat which is more organic matter and then there's chemicals you can use to break down the salt, but there's nothing like rainwater. It's the most efficient way to leach out the salts.
"In the last three years, my water has fallen off 150 gallons. Everything is better when you get rainwater.
It leaches the ground and it plants better. It works better."
Years of growing cotton on cotton has compacted the ground and prompted White to plant wheat on each of her farms. "I'm trying to do a rotation and get more organic matter back in the ground," she says.
When it comes to her tillage practices, White says they are "sort of minimum-till. We don't really break that much anymore. We hamey or chisel rather than run a breaking plow. For one thing, it's expensive."
White says leaving cotton stalks makes the soil more mellow for planting.
Variety selection is key to maximizing yields on White's farms. "If you don't have good seed you can't get the quality or quantity that you need out of the crop. I'm looking for quality, the grades that it produces, and brings you the highest loan price and yields the best."
White plants FiberMax and Stoneville. "In the last two years, we started planting Stoneville because it has the other weed gene and we've had so many resistant weeds."
White says she primarily battles pig weed but morning glories and tumbleweeds are a troublesome as well. "Pigweed is our most common weed and gives us the most problems and is the most resistant to chemicals."
White broadcasts yellows on every acre she farms. Then, on her irrigated circles, she applies either Prowl or Caparol over the top as a second herbicide. She only treats her dryland acres with the second herbicide application if she's had some rain, but "as dry as it is, I'm not doing that right now."
As White drives from farm to farm, answering calls and talking through the differing scenarios on each field, she says one thing she knows for sure, "You can't outguess the weather."