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Texas cotton producers facing dustbowl-like conditions

Texas is dry from the Coastal Bend all the up to the Panhandle. Drought could reduce cotton production in the Texas High Plains by as much as 30 percent. The lower Southeast cotton producing region has also been dry this planting season.

While the big news along the Mississippi River Delta this spring is the continuing impact of backwater flooding, levee breaches and slow drying fields, it couldn’t be any more different for an area stretching across west Texas, the south Delta and into parts of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.

The U.S. Drought Monitor has designated these areas as under severe to exceptional drought. It comes at a time when cotton planters need to be rolling.

Texas has been particularly hard hit, according to Jay Yates, risk specialist with Texas AgriLife Extension Service, speaking at the Ag Market Network’s May 12 conference call.

“It’s dry from the Coastal Bend all the way up to the Panhandle,” Yates said. “The only place that’s in halfway decent shape right now is the Abilene area, which has received rain from the tip ends of passing storms this spring. That area doesn’t really account for a lot of acres.”

According to the May 10 drought monitor, the Coastal Bend cotton growing region is under moderate to severe drought stress, while much of the rest of the state is under either severe, extreme or exceptional drought stress.

Yates reports that the Coastal Bend region already has poor stands, “and if they don’t see rain in the next two to three weeks, they could lose that cotton. They don’t have the irrigation to come in and save it.”

Producers in the Rio Grande Valley face the same situation, but do have a little more irrigation.

The Trans Pecos cotton growing area of Texas is almost 100 percent irrigated, and in good shape, according to Yates, “but they represent a very small percentage of the whole Texas crop.”

The biggest portion of the Texas crop, located in the High Plains, is suffering, except for the extreme northern portion of the High Plains, Yates said. “They are about 75 percent irrigated and they’re on track.”

The practice of pre-watering fields prior to planting in the High Plains has been hampered by hot, dry windy weather that quickly dried the fields back out, according to Yates, “especially in some of the areas north of Lubbock. They went to plant and there was no moisture left. They pulled out of the fields and started watering a second time.”

In the southern part of the High Plains, the dryland cotton there reminds Yates “of dustbowl pictures you would see.”

Yates sees as much as a 30 percent decrease in crop size from last year in the High Plains. “Last year, our High Plains crop was about 7 million bales. Judging from abandonments during years that start like this, it could be down to about 4 million bales.”

Yates figures that about half the cotton crop in the Rolling Plains will be lost, dropping from 1 million bales in 2010 to 500,000 bales in 2011. “The Rolling Plains is only about 20 percent irrigated. Just this last week, I’ve seen bare ground everywhere ready to plant cotton, but waiting.”

Yates says cotton planting may continue into June in Texas. “There is no prevented planting for drought, so the seed has to go into the ground for insurance. As we get to our final planting dates for insurance, however long it takes a farmer to get his dryland crop planted, he’ll start that many days before the insurance deadline.”

By mid-May, only light precipitation was observed in the Southeast region, from Virginia southward through Florida and southwestward through Mississippi.

The extreme drought classification was introduced into parts of southeastern Georgia and extended slightly southward along the southeastern coast of Florida. Severe drought was expanded to include southeastern Alabama, the western Florida panhandle, most of the southern half of Georgia and coastal east-central Florida. In addition, abnormally dry conditions expanded northwestward in northeast Georgia and western South Carolina. For the last three months, rainfall was 8 to more than 12 inches below normal across southern sections of Mississippi and Alabama, and through the western Florida panhandle.

According to David Stooksbury, state climatologist and a professor of engineering in the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, drought conditions gripping the southern two-thirds of Georgia are expected to last through the summer, with a chance conditions could worsen through at least the middle of August.

Stooksbury said the dry La Niña winter and spring for southern Georgia means that the typical moisture recharge for the region did not occur this year. As the heart of the agricultural growing season begins this month, there is minimal moisture reserve at this time. But water resources are expected to remain adequate for most locations.

The only hope for widespread drought relief will be from tropical weather systems, which Stooksbury says Georgia does not typically experience until late summer and fall.

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