Ag Weather Forum

El Nino Timing Looks Unfavorable for Texas Cotton

Bryce Anderson
By  Bryce Anderson , Ag Meteorologist Emeritus
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The Texas South Plains region is in drought for almost three full years dating to May 2020. The DTN June-to-August forecast for the region, along with most of Texas, is for a hot and dry pattern. (National Drought Mitigation Center and DTN graphics)

The past three years have been rough when it comes to drought in Texas. Since May 2020, drought has been dominant. A look at U.S. Drought Monitor assessments shows many counties in central and western Texas still dealing with drought of severe, extreme or exceptional intensity.

This situation is certainly true in the Texas crop district known as the South Plains. This region, made up of 19 counties north of the Caprock Escarpment, and centered on the city of Lubbock, is described by Texas AgriLife Extension as the "largest cotton producing area in the world" with acreage exceeding 3 million acres.

The South Plains, along with the counties in the Texas Panhandle, generally produce the majority of Texas cotton according to Texas AgriLife Extension. The two regions usually plant around 4.5 million acres of cotton. Around 60%, or 2.7 million acres, are dryland while the rest have at least some irrigation.

Last year was a disastrous year for Texas Plains cotton. In a typical year, the South Plains region takes in around 18 inches of precipitation. In 2022, the moisture was mainly absent. Lubbock received a total of just 15.86 inches of precipitation for the year 2022, with more than a third of that in August when 5.95 inches were recorded.

In addition, temperatures were well-above normal during the growing season with daily high temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit occurring frequently. July average temperatures were almost 6 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. As a result, cotton production was dismal. USDA in August 2022 estimated that almost 70% of non-irrigated cotton acres and 35% of irrigated cotton acres would be abandoned due to drought. (Texas AgriLife Extension cotton specialist Murilo Maeda called those percentages conservative.)

So far, 2023 is not treating the South Plains with much moisture. Precipitation for 2023 in Lubbock through April 25 totaled just 0.86 inches. That's more than twice the 0.38 inches at the same point last year, but it's only 25% of the average 3.44 inches taken in at Lubbock. And the long-range forecast keeps a dry and warm trend in place. The DTN summer outlook for Texas calls for temperatures to be more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit above average and precipitation to be below normal across almost the entire state.

The Pacific Ocean temperature and prevailing wind pattern are changing from a three-year La Nina to El Nino. El Nino usually offers better moisture chances for the Texas South Plains. But the ocean and atmospheric patterns take time to get established, and until then, drought and its impact will continue in the Texas South Plains 2023 cotton season.

Comments by DTN ag meteorologist John Baranick on the short-term precipitation outlook for the U.S. Southern Plains are available here:….

Bryce Anderson can be reached at

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