Dire Drought Dampening Outlooks in Cotton Country

As dryness persists across West Texas fields, the industry continues to focus on building new demand. ( Farm Journal )

Severe dryness is dampening moods and outlooks across the barren West Texas fields. It’s a stark reality for dry fields that cotton has claimed.

“We think we're going to be somewhere around 4.6 to 4.7 million acres, which will be about the most cotton that's ever been planted in this area in modern times,” said Plains Cotton Growers Exec. Vice President Steve Verett.

It’s better cotton prices helping buy acres this year. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projects U.S. cotton acres to hit 13.5 million acres, a 7 percent increase from 2017. 7.3 million of those acres will call Texas home, which is more than all the Southeast’s cotton acres combined.

However, as dryness persists in the largest cotton producing state in the country, National Cotton Council says drought could eat into the final product produced.

“It’s probably not a question of what gets planted in West Texas, as I do think the acres will get planted, particularly if they get a planting rain,” said Adams. “I just think the question there is do we continue to get rain throughout the growing season.”

It’s that rain that’s been in scarce supply all winter.

“We've had probably about an inch and a quarter [of rain] since January,” said Lloyd Arthur, a cotton farmer in Crosby County, Texas.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor showed nearly 13 percent of Texas is facing extreme drought. 4.6 percent is seeing exceptional drought, and the majority of that is parked in West Texas and the Panhandle.

Arthur says as the scars of the drought cut deep, it’s a stark resemblance of 2011.

“That was probably the worst drought that I had ever suffered,” said Lloyd. “We thought that we could take our irrigation and micro crop. Mother Nature told us we couldn't.”

While it may look and feel like 2011 for those living with the dryness first-hand, USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey says it’s hints of rains that bear a stronger resemblance to 1995 and 1996.

“Both of those years featured very punishing, short-lived droughts that really lasted six or seven months, but had a huge impact on the winter wheat crop in the Southern Plains,” said Rippey. “But if you go back 1996 and look at the eventual outcome, we ended up getting some good rains starting in May that continued on through the summer, and it turned out to be a pretty good and reasonably cool year for summer crops across the southern high plains.

He says the hope is high that those rains will be enough to salvage the summer crops these farmers are preparing to plant.

For Lloyd, he’s not taking any chances, as 2011 is still fresh in his mind.

“We're seeing a lot of things similar to that year, but we're not going to try to make the same mistakes,” said Arthur.

He says those mistakes came with valuable lessons, as he learned how to better manage and conserve the area’s most valuable resource: water.

“In 2011, I started usually pre-watering in March, some time about now that moisture that I had applied to the ground had already left,” said Arthur. “We had extremely low humidity days, high winds and it just pulled that moisture out of soil profile. This year we’re starting a little later.”

It’s irrigation that can be a lifeline for these crops, but years with no rain-fed moisture means not even irrigation may be enough to save the crop.

A year with so much risk, cotton farmers and the industry are thankful cotton is back in Title I of the Farm Bill. Earlier this year, Congress put seed cotton into Title 1. Adams says even if Congress passes an extension, cotton will be included.

“Since it was approved and essentially incorporated into the Farm Bill. if there is an extension of the ARC and PLC programs into the 2019 year, then the seed cotton program would be extended, as well.”

As pyramids of cotton seed left over from harvest still sit on the ground in West Texas, it’s cotton seed that’s faced headwinds with price. While much of the seed is destined for West Coast dairies, it’s demand for all of cotton that Plains Cotton Growers want to continue to see grow.

“U.S. cotton is not always the cheapest cotton around the world, but we have to have the best quality cotton and we have to have the most reliable system,” he said.

NCC says in past year, China was the top buyer of U.S. cotton, however, due to hefty domestic stocks, China backed off its buys. Today, the country’s purchases sit around 2.5 to 3 million bales.

“If we go back to 2010 to 2012, that average number was about 5.5 million bales,” said Adams. “So, they’re not as large of a customer as they were 5 years ago, but still a significant customer.”

Adams say as China’s purchases backed off, other countries have stepped up to the plate.

“Fortunately, what we’ve seen over the years is the emergence of some markets for cotton other than China, and particularly if you look at exports, Vietnam on the books for about 3 million bales of cotton for the 2017 marketing year - actually our number 1 export market - and that’s been significant growth in the last few years” said Adams.

It’s also domestic demand that’s climbing, seeing a resurgence in recent years.

“The cotton that we have today is not your daddy's old cotton,” said Verett.

He says as cotton products continue to evolve meeting fresh demand, it’s that improvement that needs to continue to progress.

“It's a natural product that people want, but it's got to perform well,” said Verett. “When you're competing with man-made fiber that every fiber is exactly the same length and the quality is exactly the same, that's not the same for cotton,” he said. “It's a natural fiber. It tends to be more variable.”

He says from wrinkle free cotton shirts to moisture-wicking material for popular products like exercise pants, it’s a product that’s competing with manmade fibers, helping the natural product gain in popularity once again.

While the industry celebrates rising production and growing demand, farmers in the southern Plains are hoping the 2018 crop gets a chance to grow at all.