Crops Swim in Texas

South Texas Farmers Face Uncertainty After Record Rains

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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A struggling sorghum crop emerges yellowed and delayed from flooding in South Texas. (DTN photo by Emily Unglesbee)

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (DTN) -- Record rainfall wasn't the only surprise for South Texas farmer Jim Massey this spring.

"I found a family of ducks living in one sorghum field the other day," the Robstown, Texas, farmer recalled. "A mother duck swam by with six little babies trailing behind her."

After years of drought, Texas has been besieged by moisture this year, leaving farmers with flooded fields, lost acres and delayed crops facing an uncertain future. Yet South Texas farmers plug ahead, determined to see their beleaguered crops through to the end.

Massey, who usually splits his 2,600 acres fairly evenly between sorghum and cotton, aims to start planting sorghum around Feb. 15. This year, steady, relentless rainfall left him with only two five-day planting windows -- one in early April and one in early May. Forced to declare prevented planting on all his cotton acres, Massey planted his sorghum months later than usual and now is bracing for the results.

"It's causing lots of irregularities that we're not used to," he noted. "The grain is growing faster because it doesn't have the slow, cool days of early spring, so we have no idea when this all will be harvested."

For South Texas farmers, a late harvest means going head to head with Mother Nature's fiercest storms. "If we're not finished by Aug. 20, we run into prime hurricane season," explained Wayne Miller, who farms near Corpus Christi. "We're not going to make it this year."

A hurricane in the Gulf this summer could ruin what remains of Miller's struggling crops. "That would be the last thing to put this season under," he said.

Between August 2014 and today, Miller's fields have seen nearly 50 inches of rainfall -- almost twice the region's yearly average of 29 inches. As a result, he planted his 4,000 sorghum acres up until May 1, and declared all 3,000 of his expected cotton acres as prevented planting.

In a frustrated attempt to polish off one final sorghum field this spring, Miller and his workers hooked an additional tractor to the tractor pulling his planter. "The ground would hold the planter up, but it wouldn't hold the tractor up," he explained. The tractors spun their way through the mud slowly, as the planter tucked seeds into the rutted aftermath. "It looked terrible afterwards," Miller admitted ruefully. "But we just really wanted to be finished."

Miller didn't finish wheat planting until Jan. 15, a month behind schedule. As wet fields have forced him to hold off on harvest, his lodged, overly mature wheat heads are now sprouting. In the meantime, flooding has claimed 500 of his sorghum acres, and Miller is worried about meeting his contracts this summer. His sorghum usually averages around 65 bushels per acre. With ample moisture, this year's crop could have reached 80 bushels an acre, but now the best of it will likely hit only 50.

To top off the spring's frustrations, Miller has calculated that even with his prevented-planting check, he will lose money on his empty cotton acres, which he sank tillage, herbicides and fertilizer into before the rains chased him out. The cotton prevented-planting check will give him $115 to $125 an acre. Between tillage, herbicide applications and $50-an-acre fertilizer costs, Miller had already sunk $150 per acre into those now-empty cotton acres. On top of all that, he planted sorghum on 2,200 of those cotton acres as a cover crop, to keep the soil from being exposed, which cost around $10 an acre, but he won't recoup anything there -- he'll just kill it this fall.

The southern area of Texas where Massey and Miller farm also has an April 15 final plant date for crop insurance, after which insurance coverage declines 1% of protection per day. Miller estimates he has reduced insurance protection now on at least half of his sorghum acres.

At the end of harvest, Miller estimates he will experience a $50- to $75-per-acre cash loss across his entire row-crop operation this year due to the weather.

Farmers like Massey and Miller are now faced with patchy sorghum fields with varying yield potential, just as important input decisions now loom.

The dreaded sugarcane aphid, which first attacked Texas sorghum fields in 2013, is making its first appearance of the season. Stink bugs, headworms and midge are sure to surface in the weeks ahead. Because many farmers were unable to make their usual pre- and post-emergence herbicide sprays, pigweeds now tower over many sorghum plants and brush off herbicide applications with nary a wilt.

In some ways, the dry years were easier to manage, Massey concluded. "Dry is cheaper because if there's no crop growing, or no potential in the crop, you don't spend money on it," he said.

He gestured to a field with alternating patches of bare, water-logged soil and bursts of beautifully green sorghum plants. "This we have to spend money on, because we don't know what its potential is," he explained. "It could be really good or it could be really bad."

The sorghum harvest promises to "a nightmare," Massey added. He expects to lose 10% to 15% of his acres completely, and the rest will range wildly in yield and maturity. Some fields have robust sections that are heading out well and could make 70 bushels an acre, intermixed with patches that are a full two weeks to a month behind, he pointed out.

Farmers aren't the only ones who will struggle to manage the uncertain harvest. "This year is a really big question mark for both producers and elevators," said Brian McCuistion, general manager of Planter's Grain Cooperative in San Patricio County, Texas.

McCuistion can usually count 110 days out from the region's traditional two-week sorghum planting rush and know to expect the bulk of the grain to arrive at his elevators then.

"But this year, we've basically got three crops in the ground right now," he noted. "We've got an early, mid and late crop." With the quality of the mid and late crop in question, McCuistion suspects the co-op's elevators may never see a grain rush this year.

As his neighbor cultivated a small and delayed cotton crop nearby, Nick Pinkston's combine bounced over ankle-deep ruts, headed for a weedy wheat field on his farm near Sinton, Texas. Had the weather permitted him to harvest this field in May, he would have gotten 50 bushels per acre. But now the brittle wheat plants lay flat on the ground, and promise to deliver a yield of only 25 bushels an acre.

Nonetheless, Pinkston starts the combine up and the reel starts the slow, painstaking job of raking up the fallen plants.

"This year, we have to take what we can get," his brother Stanley concluded.

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

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Emily Unglesbee