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Dry summer lowers expectations for South Texas farmers

Integrated Pest Management Specialist Clyde Crumley had planned on harvesting a cotton plot on one of the demonstration fields he tends in Wharton County, Texas, but a rainy Monday morning in mid-August washed out that plan. Instead, he agreed to spend a few minutes talking about what had been a less than ideal production season.

“Area farmers have about 70 percent of the cotton in,” Crumley said, “and it’s a little better than they expected, most ranging from a bale to a bale and a quarter an acre. Most expected to make a bale or better.”

A dry summer lowered expectations. “We usually get from 5 to 6 inches of rain in May; we had one-fourth of an inch this year,” he said. “I’m surprised we did as well as we did. But this soil holds water and we had good winter carryover.”

“Some milo farmers made a bit more than 4,000 pounds per acre,” said County Agent Peter McGuill. “And they made it on about 3 inches of water in-season.”

Lower than usual yields and uncertainty over price and production costs have area farmers wondering about crop mix for 2009. “I think we’ll see more wheat,” McGuill said. “I think we’ll see more grain sorghum than corn.”

“Cotton is a question mark,” Crumley said. “But a lot of Texans like to grow cotton. They grow other crops and their real interest is in making money. If they can cash flow cotton, they’ll grow it.”

He said infrastructure has a lot to do with that decision. “Farmers are fearful that if they ever lose a cotton gin it won’t come back. They want to keep their gins going, so I think we’ll maintain cotton acreage.”

He said predictions of dollar cotton last spring have not transpired. “Price now is pretty low. Most growers in the area contracted for something in the mid-70 cents range and I’m not certain they can cash flow at that in 2009. Fertilizer and energy prices next year may be the key. Farmers will look at production costs closely.”

He said if cotton holds at 75 cents or less, acreage may decrease. “We always face the unknown.”

McGuill said the higher production costs for grain, primarily fertilizer, may favor cotton.

Wharton County farmers planted 42,500 acres in cotton in 2008. They put in 74,000 acres of corn, 43,000 acres of grain sorghum and 36,000 acres of rice. Soybeans accounted for 17,000 acres and wheat took 12,000.

Yields were off for most crops, 80 to 85 bushels per acre on corn. “Our typical average over 15 years is 105,” McGuill said. Grain sorghum, at 4,200 pounds per acre, was also off. “We typically see 5,800 pounds,” he said. “It was a dry summer.”

There was a resurgence in rice acreage. “With a rice supply shortage and a price jump, we had more acres planted,” McGuill said. “We kept adding acres as the price went up. Most of it has already been harvested.”

Rice yields were pretty good, about a 40 barrel per acre average. “Our rice is well irrigated,” McGuill said. “Pumping cost was astronomical, but rice is the biggest gross dollar crop for the county.”

Crumley said cotton farmers turned to stalk destruction as soon as they could get their crop harvested.

“I came here from West Texas where stalk destruction is not an issue. They get enough freezes out there (to prevent regrowth and boll weevil habitat). But here, as soon as they finish picking, they jump on stalk destruction.”

He said most farmers at some time have been caught by August rains that kept them out of the fields, so they begin shredding stalks as soon as fields are accessible. “They do a good job.”

He said most shred and then come back with 2, 4-D to make certain they get a good kill.

“Many are adding a boom behind the flail mower to take care of it all in one pass,” McGuill said.

“The 2, 4-D option is a good tool,” Crumley said. “I’ve been surprised at how quickly cotton farmers get the stalks out.”

Boll weevils are now less of an economic threat to cotton in the area. “I’ve been running a boll weevil trap line independent of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program,” Crumley said. “This same line has been here for 10 years and numbers are down dramatically. I caught only two weevils all year. It (boll weevil eradication) is working.”

Crumley and McGuill said Wharton farmers face several other production problems. Creontiades, an insect in the myrid family, part of the plant bug group, is causing some concern. “It’s an interesting pest,” Crumley said. “Plant bugs are the bane of cotton and are on the radar screen across the Cotton Belt. I also have a lot more respect for stink bugs.”

He said the Wharton County area, about an hour south and west of Houston, bears more similarity to Delta cotton than it does to much of Texas. “We have a similar cotton culture, similar pests and similar humidity.”

McGuill and Crumley also are watching an herbicide resistance demonstration plot closely and may use findings from that test to add other cotton varieties to the mix.

They’re concerned that water hemp is showing tolerance to Roundup. “We have about 43 acres available for demonstration plots,” McGuill said. “Water hemp is pretty thick here and we’ve had good growers helping with the study.”

He said one-half gallon of Roundup “looked like it did not touch it (water hemp). Weeds were treated at a small size with good application techniques.”

They’re working with Liberty Link varieties and Ignite to offer options. They said new chemistry could be part of a rotation program.

“We also need to get back to using a pre-emergence herbicide,” McGuill said.

“Our weed specialists have been talking about that,” Crumley said. “Growers have been trying to cut inputs but a yellow herbicide is not a big cost.”

Crumley also said water hemp is a host for lygus. “That’s another concern.”

They said tillage is down across the county as farmers reduce trips across the fields to conserve fuel. “Farmers last year made fewer passes than normal. They are doing in one trip what they used to do in two,” McGuill said.

“We see a lot of interest in reduced tillage,” Crumley said.

“A lot more can be done,” McGuill added. “Some farmers are going over the land more than they can justify. Sometimes it’s just for aesthetic reasons.”

Both agreed that reduced tillage offers more benefits than just energy conservation. Fewer passes also mean less moisture loss to evaporation and better water infiltration.

“Leaving crop residue also helps improve the soil,” McGuill said.

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TAGS: Management
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