June 1, 2014

West Texas cotton producers finally see needed rainfall

Cotton farmers are hopeful that the well-timed rainfall will help produce the best crop in several years.

West Texas cotton producers finally got the rain they needed a week ago, providing a short-term reprieve for the most drought-ravaged portion of the state and attracting the attention of international markets.

Most of West Texas from the top of the Panhandle to south of San Angelo received some precipitation over five days starting May 22, ranging from an inch to more than a foot. In Lubbock, the total was 5.23 inches, putting the area slightly above normal for the year.

Growers across the region say the timing and pace of the rains was about as good as it gets — many had just planted or will in coming days.

Since the High Plains area of the region is the largest contiguous cotton-growing patch in the world, what happens to the nation’s leading producer can affect supplies and prices across the globe. In fact, the price of cotton fell slightly because the rainfall signaled to traders a good start to this year’s crop, said Steve Verett, executive vice president of the Plains Cotton Growers.

In the months leading up to Memorial Day weekend, producer Doyle Schneirs says, he was feeling somewhat depressed as time passed without a drop of rain.

Now his mood has lifted.

“I can’t wipe a smile off my face,” said Schneirs, 54, who farms about 4,500 acres of cotton near San Angelo, which he says got as much as 13 inches. “It’s not been fun pushing dry dirt around.”

The rain will save money and water for producers who irrigate, and those who plant dryland cotton, a variety that relies solely on rainfall, will be able to get their plants up and growing after three years of near-total losses.

Texas was projected to plant 6.5 million acres, more than half of the country’s 11.3 million acres; High Plains producers are forecast to plant 4 million acres. The U.S. is the world’s third-largest producer, behind China and India.

Verett said that with additional rains during the growing period, the region could get a bale, or about 500 pounds, per acre, which would surpass overall production in any of the past three years and top the five-year average of 3.2 million bales.

The pace of the rain allowed moisture to percolate down to 12-24 inches, said Texas AgriLife Extension cotton specialist Gaylon Morgan.

Lubbock-area producer Sigi Valverde said he viewed it as a “$10 million rain.” Though it is not the actual value of what the rain could do for the region, Valverde saw that value in area producers’ newfound hopeful outlook.

“You just feel a lot more optimism in your step,” he said. “It’s just been a long time coming.”

Three years ago, Texas recorded its driest year ever, costing the state $7.62 billion in agricultural losses. The High Plains pulled just 1.8 million bales of cotton from its fields that year. The years since haven’t brought much rain either, leaving Texas’ lakes at their lowest for this time of year since 1990.

Cotton industry people in Texas, the U.S. and the world assumed that the persistent drought in West Texas would lead to acres of abandoned cotton, off which growers could claim insurance losses, Verett said. But when the rain started, traders took notice, he said.

“Most of those traders didn’t want to be caught short,” Verett said. “It’s definitely softened the market” as prices dropped slightly because a strong harvest would increase supply.

Of course, the good rains don’t guarantee a good harvest.

“This is just the first critical step to making a crop,” Morgan said. “It’s going to take another rain in late June or early July to keep that crop going.”

Producers could be helped by an El Niño weather pattern that is developing in the Pacific. It typically brings increased rainfall chances to the Southwest, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said, but the timing of it is not certain now.

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