South Texas drought devastating crops

This year’s crop of cotton, corn and grain sorghum in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is shaping up to be a repeat of the drought disaster of 2006, according to an expert with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

“So far, it’s looking bad, and it’s mainly drought-related” said Dr. Luis Ribera, an AgriLife Extension agricultural economist in Weslaco.

“It’s still early in the season,” he said, "but so far, the number of failed acres is showing that we’re on course to repeat what happened in 2006 when we lost 75 percent of our cotton, 87 percent of our corn and 44 percent of our grain sorghum.”

The only hint of good news in all that, Ribera said, is that only about 60,000 aes of cotton were planted this year, compared to 250,000 in 2006.

“Most of what was not planted in cotton this year went to grain sorghum,” he said. “Prices for sorghum are healthier than they are for cotton, but a drought puts all crops at peril.”

As of June 4, growers in the four-county Lower Rio Grande Valley area have already received $3.6 million in insurance payments on lost crops, Ribera said.

“That indemnification was based on losses so far of 31.3 percent of the cotton, 6.4 percent of the corn and 2 percent of sorghum,” he said. “In 2006, at the end of June, we had already racked up losses in cotton and corn in the 60 percent range and almost 20 percent of sorghum.”

Ribera said the U.S. Department of Agriculture data of failed acres shows that by the end of the season, crop percentage losses could be similar to what they were in 2006 when growers lost a total of $34.3 million.

“Crops in 2007 and 2008 were decent years with normal losses,” he said, “but not this year.”

In addition to the 60,671 cotton acres planted this year, growers also planted 297,098 acres of grain sorghum and 36,504 acres of corn.

"The relatively small cotton crop this year is due to a variety of economic factors,” Ribera said, “including low cotton market prices, the weak economy and the relatively low price of oil, which favors the production of synthetic fabrics over cotton.”

Consequently, many growers here elected to plant sorghum instead, Ribera said.

“The market price of sorghum is good this year, at about $4.25 per bushel right now. It’s an easier crop to grow with fewer inputs and investments, but the profit margin isn’t as high as it is for cotton, in a good year.”

The price of cotton is at about 45 cents per pound, which is below breakeven for growers here, Ribera said.

Sam Simmons, who with his two sons farms cotton, sugarcane, sorghum, corn and soybeans near Harlingen, said this year’s Valley cotton crop will likely be one of the smallest ever, a far cry from the days of harvesting over 350,000 bales of cotton.

“Most of what we harvest this year will come from the irrigated fields,” he said, “but overall yields won’t be good. We’ll be hard-pressed to make 65,000 bales.”

Simmons said dryland cotton, which makes up the majority of this year’s crop, never had a chance.

"The Valley probably has a half to a third of what was planted in dryland cotton still out there,” he said. “The rest has failed and what is left won’t yield well. It never got the rain it needed when it was small, and it’s probably too late to recover. We won’t know for another four or five weeks, but the recent rains we’ve gotten likely won’t do any good.”

Before light scattered rains fell in late May, the southern tip of Texas had not had significant rain since August, according to the National Weather Service.

“We’d have to make significant yields to do well,” Simmons said. “Anymore it’s been a full-time job just trying to get our operations to be leaner and tighter. Cotton prices are low, global demand is weak and crop input prices just keep rising. Fertilizer is up 40 percent over last year, labor is up, seed costs…it’s tough.”

Simmons said his sugarcane crop is smaller than what it was last year at this time, also for a lack of rainfall.

Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, said it’s too early to determine what impact the drought will have on this year’s winter citrus crop.

“Citrus has not been impacted as much as the annual row crops, especially the non-irrigated row crops,” he said. “But citrus will suffer to some extent if we don’t get some rain. But at this point, it’s too early to determine how the quantity and quality might be affected.”

Unlike other crops in the area, vegetable production may have benefitted from the drought, according to Dr. Juan Anciso, an AgriLife Extension vegetable specialist.

"All our vegetable production is under irrigation,” Anciso said. “So for vegetables, if there’s plenty of irrigation water available, a drought can be an ideal situation because growers aren’t battling the insects and diseases that rains bring.”

Anciso said the overall yields of winter vegetables, especially onions and carrots, were high this year, which helped growers in a depressed market.

“Except for watermelons, whose prices were “fair to good,” as they have been for the past six to nine years, market prices for vegetables were low.”

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