What to do, what to do? Many farmers in the North Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas portion of the Southern Plains are asking themselves this question this spring.
Grain and fiber prices are the highest in decades; at the same time, expenses for fuel, lubrication and labor are high as well. And the potential for a serious drought, now a certainty on the High Plains, lurks just a few weeks away.
Roger Fischer, a Frederick, Okla., producer, opened a meeting of cotton growers last week at Altus, Okla., with prayer. He prayed for rain. A lot of "amens," followed from growers.
So, this is the situation. Anyone who farms in this area knows one certainty is a shortage of moisture. Granted, there are times when there is too much moisture, even flooding, but as the native to western Oklahoma said, "If you hear anyone complaining about too much rain, they haven't lived here long enough."
Farmers like Fischer and his neighbor, Phil Bohl, Chattanooga, Okla., know that regardless of what the weather provides, they can't deviate much from their regular farming technique. Both dryland farmers, they make use of the latest in farming technology like GPS direction equipment on their tractors and harvesters and no-till or minimum-till to preserve soil moisture, nutrients and to control soil erosion.
Neither farmer grazed winter wheat this winter, preferring to keep the crop growing for harvest when prices are good. With cotton prices higher than any time in several decades, they will plant the latest transgenic Roundup Ready Flex and Bollgard varieties.
They’ll plant either no-till or minimum-till to establish a seedbed.
With good prices available for their crops, they do the best job they can to get the best yields at harvest. If it doesn't rain and summer comes with hot, dry weather, they will "dust in" their cotton. They have a definite rotation pattern with wheat and cotton the next year and grain sorghum the next and so on. A good rotation program allows them to take advantage of prices for different crops and to keep the land productive in cool and warm seasons. Rotating crops also helps prevent soil-borne diseases and weeds that persist in a particular crop.
If it hasn't rained by May 25, Bole and Fischer, after putting their preplant herbicides and fertilizer in the soil, will plant cotton. With some bags of transgenic cottonseed costing more than $300 per bag, planting in a dry soil does take faith that rain will eventually come.
Knowing about the world-wide demand for cotton products and the market paying more than $1.50 per pound for lint cotton, Fischer says he will plant more cotton this year. "Most of the time I rotate my cotton ground at least every two years," he said. "But this year, I intend to plant more cotton by returning to the same fields I have planted cotton for the past two years."
To the east in Tillman County, Bole will plant more cotton as well. "We are taking on more acreage by custom farming for other people," he said. "This will allow us to have more cotton when prices are high."
The risk is greater, too. Diesel fuel costs more now. Other inputs have increased as well. Fewer lending agencies are willing to trust anyone except those who have proven themselves capable of bringing in a crop despite high costs and adverse weather conditions.
One farmer said he knows of no gamble greater than farming, particular dryland farming where the grower has no control over the most important factor, rain.
TALKIN' COTTON is produced by NTOK Cotton, a cotton industry which supports and encourages increased cotton production in the Rolling Plains of North Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. For more information on the cotton scene, see ntokcotton.org and oikiecotton.org. For questions and comments on Talkin' Cotton, contact [email protected]