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Rio Grande Valley cotton season was a roller coaster ride

The 2007 cotton season in the Rio Grande Valley got off to a good start, but before the season finally ended in October, growers had seen their share of ups and downs.

Manda Cattaneo, a cotton integrated pest management entomologist at the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, said despite good soil moisture for planting early in the year, growers planted less than half of what they did in 2006.

The switch to grain sorghum meant only 100,000 acres of cotton were planted in the Valley this year, compared to almost 250,000 acres last year.

“Grain prices were high this year due to increased ethanol production,” she said. “So a lot of our farmers switched from cotton to grain sorghum, and they did well with that.”

Some growers who opted for grain sorghum may have also been swayed by the increased costs of producing cotton and the recent history of low cotton market prices, Cattaneo said.

“The costs of seed, fertilizer, diesel, agricultural chemicals and other inputs continue to rise while the market price of cotton remains low,” she said.

Luis Ribera, an agricultural economist in Weslaco, said Texas upland cotton market prices this year hovered around 48 cents per pound with December futures in the upper 50-cent range.

The next few months saw cotton farms riding a see-saw of fortunes and misfortunes, Cattaneo said.

“We had so much rain at planting that some growers, especially in the Cameron County area, had to replant. Then we had a cool spell in early April that hurt the fruit set that we would normally want,” she said.

The cool spell was followed by warm days that provided the heat cotton needs to grow. Plants recovered, Cattaneo said, and started setting fruit. But then a dry spell hit at a time when cotton plants needed water to grow and produce fruit.

That was followed by an invasion of insect pests, including cotton fleahoppers and cotton aphids that reduced yields and triggered costly pesticide expenses.

“But then the June rains came to help knock back those insect populations while virtually saving a lot of the cotton that was shutting down in dryland fields for lack of moisture,” Cattaneo said.

Toward the end of the season, more insects -- cotton bollworms and tobacco budworms -- took their toll. And the rains continued, making it difficult to get into fields to harvest and causing some fields to suffer cotton boll rot.

“The Sept. 1 deadline that growers have to destroy cotton stalks to discourage over-wintering of boll weevils was pushed back several times due to soggy fields, which only added to the frustration of producing cotton this year,” Cattaneo said.

In the end, Valley growers produced about 125,000 bales of cotton, compared to 112,000 bales produced during last year’s devastating drought. Ribera said the 2007 crop was valued at $31.2 million.

Cattaneo doesn’t expect cotton acreage to rebound next year, thanks to unfavorable economic conditions.

“Rio Farms (a private experimental farm in Monte Alto) has developed a promising soybean variety for the Valley, which some growers are considering, and some are evaluating other alternative crops for 2008, including winter wheat,” she said.

“But the important thing is that farmers continue to produce crops here because of the positive economic ripple effect they have on our local economy.”

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