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Farmers look to cotton to replace freeze-killed wheat crop

Some farmers are waiting for insurance decisions. Variety decisions still a few weeks away. Cotton offers rotation advantages.

Cotton is the go-to crop Doug Scherler's family has chosen to offset the 100-percent loss of their frozen-out 2013 wheat acreage.

"The freezes we suffered in the last few weeks cost us our entire wheat crop," the Walters, Oklahoma, farmer said. "One hundred percent of our wheat was insured out.”

"We intend to plant 2,000 acres of cotton as soon as the weather is warm enough," he said. "This includes all of our family—Jeremy, my son, Stan, my brother, and Marvin, my father."

Scherler said some crop insurance companies have been reluctant to release farmers' wheat so they could decide what to do with the freeze-damaged crop. "We were fortunate our company gave us the go ahead on."

He said it is too early to make any decisions on what cotton varieties they will plant later this spring. "While we are waiting to choose individual cotton varieties, you can be sure they will be Roundup Ready varieties for better weed control."

Scherler had plenty of expert help in deciding how much freeze damaged his wheat crop. "Oklahoma State University agronomists examined our crop along with a lot of other wheat fields in Cotton County," he said. "They said the majority of the wheat they observed had been killed from the extreme cold weather."

Recent rains across southern and southwestern Oklahoma have provided farmers will much-needed soil moisture, even though a lot more rain is needed before spring planting season.

"We have had some welcome rain the last few days," said Scherler, who is a dryland farmer. "If it continues to rain on into summer, we will have a good chance to get a cotton crop started. But it sure needs to keep on raining."

Oklahoma's 2013 wheat crop had good potential before five successive state-wide freezes wiped out the crop's potential yield.

Mark Gregory, Oklahoma State University Extension area agronomist at Duncan, said the freeze, on top of the persistent drought which started in 2011, has put farmers in an especially difficult situation.

"Crop insurance is what has kept many farmers going for the past two and a half years," Gregory said. "This spring, we all thought the 2013 wheat crop had a lot of potential. Then extreme cold weather brought us freezing weather at the wrong time of the crop's development. These record-late freezes killed the developing heads in the wheat plants preventing farmers from being able to harvest the crop for seed."

Recent rainfall

When reminded about recent welcome rains, some of them in the four-inch plus range, Gregory points out that the extended severe drought has left much of Oklahoma farmland with little, if any, soil moisture for rains to build on.

"We are all fortunate to see these recent rains," he said. "But we need to receive a lot more moisture to fill up the soil profile, particularly in western and southwestern Oklahoma. The western part of Oklahoma is in a more severe state of drought than the rest of the state. We need a lot more rain to put moisture in the subsoil to provide much-needed moisture later in the spring to get summer crops up and to provide surface water for ponds and lakes."

Marvin Wyatt, a Lawton, Okla., farmer, is typical of a lot of farmers who are still waiting to see how much wheat will be declared a loss for crop insurance purposes. "We have looked at our fields with our insurance adjusters, but they are still determining how much of the crop will be declared a loss," he said.

Wyatt expected to harvest a bumper crop this spring and top-dressed his wheat and applied Finesse herbicide at the same time. Knowing Finesse has a plant-back restriction for some crops, he left the herbicide off some of fields just in case any late freezes would leave him needing to plant a second crop to offset the wheat loss.

"We will be planting cotton later in the spring on that land as well as on fields we had already selected for cotton production this year," he said.

"We try to follow a definite crop rotation from one year to the next, but dryland farming in this country demands you stay flexible when making future plans."

Gregory and Scherler agree cotton is a good choice for a crop to replace frozen-out wheat. Cotton varieties grown in North Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have been developed for dryland production where rainfall keeps the crop growing. Cotton is a good choice for agricultural production in semi-arid climates with low humidity and warm weather. Oklahoma State University research director and cotton Extension program leader Randy Boman believes rotating failed wheat acres in the state's cotton-growing region may be the answer to how farmers can best recover from the recent record-late freezes.

"Lint prices look good at this time, but many producers tend to overlook seed income," he said. "Gin-run cottonseed recently has been of high enough value to cover ginning costs and returns money to the grower. In addition, a cotton rotation could enable growers to diversify wheat weed and disease management programs."
May rains are badly needed to refill subsoil moisture across southwestern Oklahoma to make this rotation a viable option, Boman said.
For insurance purposes, far southwestern Oklahoma counties have a non-irrigated final planting date of June 20. The date is June 10 for most other Oklahoma counties.


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