LUBBOCK, Texas, (DTN) -- Bryan Baker, a fourth-generation farmer from Sudan, Texas, was planting cotton Tuesday into a parched sandy loam soil that felt like a fine powder. Baker said his last significant rain was last summer.
"We've had a couple of clouds come through, but we've just missed out on the rains. I've had basically zero since last August."
While commodity prices are high and demand for both feedstuffs and fiber are strong globally, farmers in West Texas are struggling with exceptional drought conditions that have farmers saying 2022 is shaping up to be worse than the 2011 drought. The 2011 drought led to more than $7 billion in losses for both crops and livestock.
While a higher percentage of Texas was under drought stress in 2011, farmers say the difference is this year they went into spring with a lot less soil moisture than 11 years ago.
"To me, this year is worse than it was then -- definitely, in this area it's worse," Baker said.
NO SUBSOIL MOISTURE
About an hour east of Baker, Hagen Hunt farms north of Plainview, Texas. He reiterated Baker's comments about the contrast between 2011 and now. "We have no subsoil moisture right now whatsoever."
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows nearly all of the Texas Panhandle in at least D3 extreme drought and most counties in D4 exceptional drought conditions. (See https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/….)
A secretary/treasurer for the Texas Corn Producers, Hunt said he must cut back on irrigated corn this year because of the lack of rain.
"I'm the only one in my group of guys who has planted any corn," Hunt said. "Everybody is growing more cotton."
While analysts check out the Kansas winter wheat crop, Texas' winter wheat crop is projected at about 41.6 million bushels (mb), down roughly 44% from last year. USDA Crop Progress reports as of May 15 put Texas wheat at 65% very poor and 16% poor condition. Only 1% of the soil in the Panhandle has adequate soil moisture, while as much as 97% -- depending on the district -- is listed as "very short" of moisture. (See https://www.nass.usda.gov/….)
LITTLE HOPE FOR WHEAT CROP
As Ryan Wieck surveyed his winter wheat crop, he's not holding out much hope of producing a crop on his farm about a half hour south of Amarillo. Most of the plants are only about 4 inches tall.
"I really don't think we're going to pull the combine out of the barn this year," Wieck said. "I don't think we're going to have a single acre of wheat."
Dale Artho, who farms near Wildorado, Texas, just west of Amarillo, pulled water off wheat this spring to irrigate the ground before planting white food-grade corn last week. "It just kept drying out," he said.
Hunt made a similar decision as he planted his corn into a dryland wheat field that had failed. Hunt said there are few wheat fields in his area that will produce. "There won't be a wheat crop coming out of here," he said.
Wieck said he could not remember the last time he had an inch of rain. Storm clouds that rolled through the area Monday night went both north and south of his area. "This drought just will not give up," he said.
Wieck added, "Input costs are up, commodity prices are up, but we don't have anything to sell. I don't care what the price is if we don't have any commodities to sell."
Jackie Rudd, a wheat breeding professor at Texas A&M AgriLife in Amarillo, said a lot of farmers in the area have already cut their wheat for silage going to area dairies. He noted the frustration facing farmers who have been watching rising grain prices.
"It's a shame we don't have an average wheat crop," Rudd said. "This would have been a fantastic opportunity to have more exports and show the value of higher quality."
SPRING CROPS: COTTON IS KING
Nearly 50 years old, Baker said he's been farming on his own since 1996 and has never sold cotton more than $1 a pound. Now he's watching December cotton hit $1.32 a pound as he's seeding it into powdery soil.
"It's going to be very difficult to have a single stalk of it by the time you get to harvest unless the weather changes. But if it hasn't rained in nine months, I don't know if it's going to rain in the next two weeks."
But farmers up and down the Panhandle said they are bumping up their cotton acres because it's the one crop that could survive with less irrigation or possibly dryland conditions if the drought would break.
"We're going to stick with cotton this year," Wieck said. "We feel cotton can handle the dryness and the stress a little better than sorghum."
Cotton, like most other agricultural commodities, is under price pressure because of global production concerns. While cotton acres are expected to rise 9%, to 12.2 million acres, the projected U.S. crop for 2022 is pegged at 16.5 million bales with ending stocks expected at a six-year low. Global estimates now suggest a new-crop shortfall of 930,000 bales, according to DTN weekly commentary.
Baker, who farms about 3,000 acres, said about 60% of his crop is irrigated and 40% dryland. He planted his dryland cotton first, hoping to get a rain before planting the irrigated fields. Like others, Baker said he's a little late planting because he was holding out for rain. Baker also noted the final planting date for crop insurance is May 31.
"Crop insurance is our main and No. 1 safety net out here," Baker said. "Without that crop insurance, we would not be in business this year."
Given the current circumstances, Baker said he expects he will have a crop insurance claim but said he and most farmers would rather have the crop.
"We get more benefits out of a crop. Our local co-op pays us a dividend for delivering a crop there. So, there are a lot more benefits to raising a crop rather than using crop insurance. And the fact it's in our blood and we want to raise a crop."
Hunt expressed a similar frustration, noting people outside of agriculture often talk about the crop-insurance safety net, but he, too, was planting with hopes of making a crop.
"You always make more money growing a crop," Hunt said. "That's what you want to do."
FUTURE WITH LESS IRRIGATION
One reason farmers are turning more to cotton is they don't have the irrigation capacity in West Texas any longer. Farmers also are finding ways to adapt to more dryland crop production.
Wieck said he's had to manage how to use his water to maximum potential with limited usage.
"The wells just don't pump like they used to," he said. "We've learned that from droughts in the past."
Farmers make a variety of adjustments. Baker uses a skip-row planting pattern for his cotton, planting two rows then skipping a row. "It gives each plant on each side of that flank an extra level of irrigation, and our yields stay about the same."
Traditional corn crops in the area under pivot for grain are fewer and fewer, Artho said, noting the Panhandle has converted from a grain-producing area to a forage-producing area. That's happened in combination with dairy expansion in West Texas leading to more demand for silage, but also just due to a need to reduce water usage. "Crops like corn for grain just use too much resources in this country -- too much water," Artho said.
Adding to the water challenges, Hunt said high electricity costs this year have also led to more doubts about continuing to irrigate.
"We're on the edge of shutting off irrigation pivots and going 100% dryland," Hunt said, adding that would lead to more focus on cotton and likely sorghum as a rotation.
Jourdan Bell, an AgriLife Extension agronomist in Amarillo, stressed the importance of fallowing fields in arid dryland areas. In a normal year, that fallow helps build some soil moisture for the next crop. That is going to become a more crucial practice as farmers have to idle more pivots.
"As our aquifer declines, this is why you see more of a shift to dryland management right now," Bell said.
That need for dryland fallow is why some policy moves to encourage double cropping aren't practical among West Texas producers.
"It's hard to write ag policy that fits every micro-climate in the U.S.," Artho said. "There really needs to be some versatility."
May and June are typically considered some of the wettest months in West Texas. That prospect keeps farmers in the fields right now.
"It just takes one thing to change, and it will be wet. We keep thinking that and keep struggling," Wieck said.
Dale Artho talks about drought around Amarillo in a video you can see at:
Hagen Hunt talks about farming near Plainview, Texas, in a video you can see at:
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
(c) Copyright 2022 DTN, LLC. All rights reserved.