It's been several years since Texas coastal cotton received substantial rainfall during the growing season, but in spite of late planting and slow development, early predictions are that large areas of the Northern Coastal Bend as far north as Harris County may be in for good quality and fair yields.
Headed south to the middle and lower Coastal Bend, the cotton season was a wash for almost every grower as drought conditions continued to plague South Texas.
Further south in the Rio Grande Valley, dryland cotton failed to produce much of a crop, but most irrigated cotton got a boost from substantial yet spotty showers throughout the summer, and early harvest reports indicate many acres are showing promising yields and exceptional quality.
"We've got beautiful cotton, just not on as much ground as we would like or expect compared to what we are used to having, but we have some fabulous cotton here so far this year," reports Brad Cowan, Hidalgo County Extension Agent.
Cowan says it all comes down to who had the water this year, in terms of irrigation water, but more importantly "which crops were under the right cloud at the right time.
"It was good for the guys that got water, which wasn't in very many places, but for those that did get the rain and could irrigate as well, the cotton looks really good. For those of us that have been around long enough to know what a good cotton crop usually looks like down here, it looks sad this year, a bad year really in terms of the number of bales that will be harvested," Cowan added.
But he has seen some remarkable cotton in some fields, and what cotton has been harvested so far has been high quality and the fields are providing promising yields.
"If we had gotten a few inches more water at the right time, we may have seen even better yields. A lot of dryland cotton producers just zeroed out early on, but there were a few dryland farms that got just enough rain to bring in a little cotton, but for them it was overall a pretty bad year," he said.
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Cowan says the high quality, high yielding cotton that has come in can be attributed to improved varieties and a boll weevil eradication program that is working and has minimized pest and disease pressure. He looks forward to the return of average rains and a resolution to the issue with water owed to South Texas by Mexico.
"If we could have gotten the water we were supposed to get according to the 1944 water treaty with Mexico, our cotton would have been a great deal better this year. And it's not just cotton, but all of agriculture in South Texas including cotton and corn, sorghum, sugarcane, and the citrus industry. Ranchers may not be culling their herds these hot summers if we had the water that is owed to us," Cowan said.
Middle Coast goes bust
Regardless how dry it was in parts of the Rio Grande Valley, large areas of the Coastal Bend fared far worse this summer in both cotton and sorghum crops. Long-time farmers in the region say what rain managed to fall in spring and summer wasn't bad, and it may have sustained a crop longer if it wasn't for two-plus consecutive years of drought that has scorched the Coastal Bend.
"I've been here 60 years and I've never seen anything like this," says Robstown cotton producer and Chairman of the National Cotton Council Jimmy Dodson, who farms cotton and grain near Chapman Ranch. "You would have to go back 100 years probably to see the same kind of issues we are having in this current drought period."
Dodson says for the first time he was not able to get a single acre of cotton to make a stand after planting last spring, citing extreme drought conditions and a shortage of water.
"Our other major crop is sorghum and we plowed under all of it except for about 400 acres that we harvested, and to be honest, it was pretty ugly. Crop insurance works pretty well when you see a drought coming though. My dad used to say crop insurance doesn't really change red ink to black; it turns it to a shade of purple, and we're pretty happy we have purple ink right now."
Chapman Ranch lies just to the south-southeast of Corpus Christi in Nueces County. The southern and western parts of the county have failed to get the same frequent showers this summer as experienced in the northern and northeastern region. From Sinton and Refugio and farther up the coast to Goliad, Victoria, Jackson, Wharton, and Colorado Counties, substantial spring and summer rains have provided adequate moisture for good growth, but late planting and unseasonably cool temperatures in April and May have caused many crops to develop slowly.
Grain sorghum particularly appeared to be of good quality in the northern Coastal Bend according to reports, and even better farther up the coast where more rains fell.
David Fields is the CEO of Gulf Compress, a federated coop, in Corpus Christi. A number of ginners up and down the Texas coast work with the Compress for warehousing and shipping to buyers.
"I want to see us get this crop out, and it will come out pretty quickly if we can get a couple of weeks without rain so they can get in the fields and finish up," Fields told Southwest Farm Press following a recent National Cotton Council tour of the Compress facility at the Port of Corpus Christi.
The Compress serves growers and ginners up and down the Texas coast and into the Rio Grande Valley with over 2.75 million square feet of storage space.
"I would say our average at the Compress is handling about 625,000 bales of cotton each year. This year I am expecting about 200,000 bales, which would make this the second worst year in the history of the coop," which was organized in 195, he said.
"Cotton is going to be down all across Texas this year but South Texas particularly has and continues to suffer from a severe drought. Up the coast line you will find some dryland acres of cotton that look pretty good because of regular rains, but in the western parts of Nueces County things are terrible because of dry conditions, and a little better down the coast."
In spite of a lighter South Texas cotton crop, producers say the race is now on. As harvest aids are applied on many fields and harvesting continues sporadically across the coast this week, the biggest fear becomes rain at a rare time when it not wanted.
But a sudden tropical wave developed across Mexican waters early this week and has brought broad rain showers all across South Texas and especially in coastal areas, which is threatening to derail harvest efforts.
The weather and the week ahead will be critical in determining how the season will fare in this the eleventh hour of the growing season.