In mid-September, Mark Appling had not seen a good two-inch rain on his Floyd County, Texas, farm since September 2011.
“It’s drier here than anywhere I know,” he said. “Some spots are OK, but if you’re not in that spot, it’s dry. In some cases, it’s been worse than last year. Last year, we knew what we had. Zero.”
This harvest season is a bit more complicated. “On some fields, we will have to start harvest and then wait and see what they will do,” he said. “I may have one dryland field out of 1,500 acres that I have to cut. I just have to wait and see.”
He says some of his irrigated cotton “looks good, but not all.”
Backing water off to a half-circle under a center pivot irrigation system has made sense for a lot of cotton farmers this year. “Some pushed to make a bale per acre; they were just stretched too thin, so we may have more cutting back to a half circle next year.”
Most farmers in his area simply didn’t get enough rainfall to supplement irrigation. “We got maybe two-tenths to three-tenths of an inch during the summer. We couldn’t tell that it did anything. South of Crosbyton they got some good rains but we got two-tenths here. Rain was spotty.”
Moisture seemed to be better from Highway 40 south. “We didn’t get much more rain this year than we did in 2011,” Appling said. But he admits he was a little better off. It was dry but “we had a few little rains, including a one-and- a-fourth-inch rain June 6, enough to get the crop up. That was the biggest difference from last year. In 2011, we got no rain.” Dryland cotton never germinated last year.
He said this past summer was hot but not nearly as windy as last year. “Last year the wind blew all summer. This summer was hot but not as miserable.”
Last summer’s drought was the worst he’s ever seen. “My dad is 83, and he had never seen anything that bad. He says it was worse than the dry 1950s. And back then they had more irrigation water. Our wells are off 30 percent just in the last few years. We probably have 25 percent less water in just the past two years.”
He said low natural gas prices helped control energy costs for irrigation.
The summer of 2012 was dry but some better. “We got just enough moisture during the summer to keep it alive. But we quit spending money on the dryland acreage awhile back. Now, we just need to take it out, clean it up and start getting ready for next year.”
He said insurance adjusters were beginning to look at drought-damaged acreage in mid-September. “They’ll let us out of some,” he said. “Some acres we’ll have to wait and see if bolls pop open.”
He expects two separate harvest seasons. Farmers will get out their best cotton and wait until frost to get the rest after “they see what it does. I’ve already seen some patches killed and harvested, a few bales ginned.”
He was about a month away from harvest and was looking at starting harvest aid applications on his irrigated fields.
He expects to have insurance claims again this fall. “Insurance saved a lot of people last year,” he said. “But I prefer to make a crop every year. We just can’t count on it.”
He made some changes after the historical drought of 2011, including half-circles. “Until last year, we could water two zones at a time. Last year was hard on the wells; we watered more than usual. I think a lot of us are going to re-examine some things, like cutting pivots in half to keep irrigated yields up. I’ll probably do more of that next year.”
He has some cotton on subsurface drip irrigation and says water has been limited for those systems as well.
“When we started off with our drip systems we had 90 gallons of water; sometimes we had 100 to 120 gallons per acre. By the end of the season, wells would be down to 80 gallons. Now, we have 50 gallons, two gallons a minute.
He expects to make about 800 pounds per acre on the drip system. “In 2010, we made 1,600. Last year we made 690. “We’re doing the best we can do, but we still need some help from rainfall.”
He’s also planting wheat, and has the option of watering it in the winter, if necessary. “I’ll harvest wheat if I can, then I’ll control weeds and fallow the land all summer. I’ll plant cotton the following spring and switch sides under the pivot with wheat acreage in the fall.”
He says that system saves or concentrates water resources and also “changes up the chemical mix. That helps with weed resistance problems and improves the soil. I’ll use a residual herbicide, too. It’s time we quit messing with resistant weeds.”
He plants Roundup Ready varieties and uses little tillage. “I list, plant and run one long sweep and put in furrow dykes. I spray Roundup twice and use a little Pix. That’s all I’ve had to do.”
All his cotton is Roundup Ready Flex with some Bt. He likes Phytogen 499. “I’m pretty happy with it. I also use FiberMax 2011 under the pivots and FM 9170 in some fields.” He also planted FM 9103 GT (GlyTol). “And I planted Americot 1532. That’s an inexpensive Bt variety for dryland acreage.”
Appling expects to make a decent crop from irrigated acreage this year, nothing like what he hopes for when he plants over a drip system or under a pivot, but okay under the circumstance.
“I think we could have made a crop this year if we had gotten any winter moisture,” he says. “We had some summer rain, but it just fell short.”
He looked over a dryland field with stalks about six inches tall. Each had two or three small bolls, some already open, others still hard and unlikely to mature enough to harvest. The stand was almost perfect and would have looked like a field with excellent yield potential from a distance and if the month were June instead of late September.
The adjuster was due in a few days.