Area cotton farmers hit by bad weather

By Jennifer Dorsett

West Texas and the Panhandle are known for high winds, but area farmers say they’ve never seen anything like the storm that blew through in early June.

On June 9, a cold front pushed a large dust storm ahead of it from the Texas Panhandle through the South Plains and down to the Permian Basin.

Damage was widespread across the region.

Young cotton plants were reduced to “toothpicks,” one farmer said. Many others lost plants to the effects of environmental static electricity.

Marcus Halfmann, Sherman and Midland counties

“Never in my life have I seen winds like we had in June,” Marcus Halfmann, the Texas Farm Bureau (TFB) 2016 Outstanding Young Farmer & Rancher contest winner and Midland County Farm Bureau member, said. “It just totally devastated us.”

Halfmann farms in Midland County but took on a place at the northmost tip of the Texas Panhandle in Sherman County this year.

The day before the storm, Halfmann said the Sherman County farm was experiencing 40 mile-per-hour (mph) winds out of the south. The next day, the wind shifted and began blowing out of the north. Sustained wind speeds of 45-60 mph were interspersed with gusts up to 80 mph.

“Those gusts didn’t just blow away our crops. They were moving rocks and everything in their path,” Halfmann said.

He hadn’t been finished planting long. The cotton was in the second set of true leaves, but the wind blew all the leaves off the plants. There’s nothing left in the field but stems about an inch tall.

Halfmann said they look like toothpicks.

The root system of those cotton plants isn’t in good shape, either.

“It’s not looking positive as far as emergence and growth. We’re behind on everything. We’re trying to water more and more, but we’re so far behind I don’t know if we’ll catch up this year,” Halfmann said.

Planting alternate crops is the only option he has left.

“We’re past the replant date for cotton, so we’re scrambling to try to maybe grow some hay or silage to sell to dairies,” he said. “But because of COVID-19 and the steps they’ve had to take to reduce production, dairies don’t seem to really want the silage at this time. But there might be some cases where they take some because there’s also an extreme shortage of silage right now.”

Justin Garrett, Moore County

One county south, Moore County Farm Bureau member Justin Garrett was hit by a combination of wind and static electricity damage.

“We had some sustained winds somewhere in the 50-mph range and gusts in the 60s,” Garrett said. “Between our fields and a few neighbors’ fields, the storm went through there and mowed down quite a few acres. We ended up losing about 1,000 acres of cotton from the static electricity and winds.”

His cotton was in the four-to-six true leaves stage and stood four to five inches tall before the storm.

“The fields that had good cover crops in place fared very well,” he said. “The cotton planted to oats that were killed right before we planted did the best, and some of our cotton with wheat cover did pretty well, too.”

As a result, most of his dryland cotton is doing fine, but even some of the cotton planted into cover crops are buried in sand and the static burned off the leaves.

Garrett plans to expand his cover crops next year. There would have been more cover this year, but he had issues with volunteer corn and ended up plowing more than he would have liked to destroy the volunteer plants.

“We just had some really persistent volunteer corn issues this year because that grain was so small, and it was hard to get it all up last season during harvest,” he said. “I even had to spray in a few places to knock it out, and now I’ve got some herbicide restrictions in place I have to deal with. Now, I’ll have to wait 30 days on that before I try to go in and plant some short-season milo or corn in those areas, but if we wait much longer than that, we’ll probably just have to go fallow the rest of the year for those fields.”

In a few spots where he lost the middle of his crop circles, he plans to plant short-season cotton varieties.

“We were seeing a really good crop with some of the best emergence we’ve had in years,” he said. “But 12 hours of 50-plus winds will change that.”

While things don’t look as good as he hoped, he remembers other times and is thankful for what he has.

“As many acres as we lost last year…the aftermath of disease that followed and losing all the crops to flood—this year could be much worse,” he said.

Greg Glover, Randall County

A little further south, Randall County Farm Bureau member and cotton farmer Greg Glover said the day of the storm was a very bad day.

“We did have some irrigated cotton that got blown out, but I had more damage from the static electricity, and some of it’s still kind of dying,” Glover said. “Static electricity killed the plants over the following days. The crop died a slow death.”

According to atmospheric scientists, static electricity builds in dust storms when sand grains and larger dust particles bounce and jostle against each other in the wind, electrically charging the air mass.

The static electricity can “zap” the leaves, Glover explained. But it affects the plants’ stems, as well. Plants that survive won’t metabolize nutrients as efficiently as an uninjured plant, reducing plant size and yields and exposing the crop to pest and disease issues due to its weakened state.

“We lost two circles of cotton to that storm,” he said. “We’re not going to replant—just have the insurance adjuster come out and send more water to the corn crop instead.”

The corn crop didn’t escape injury, either.

“The corn is looking okay, but 5-10 percent of our corn acreage has green snap,” Glover said. “We’ve got plants that completely leaned over that didn’t snap, but we’ve never seen anything like this.

It wasn’t even knee-high. The plants were maybe to the top of a cowboy boot high, and a lot of them still snapped.”

As a wall of dust approached from the northwest, Glover said it was eerily reminiscent of the dark days of drought in 2011, the driest year ever on record in Texas.

“Other than it being 100 degrees back then and those winds coming from the south, it was just like 2011. That dust storm was picking up everything on its way,” he said. “We had some gusts over 60 mph. At one point in the afternoon, I looked at the news, and the closest weather stations said wind was sustained at 40-plus mph. North of Amarillo, Spearman had 75 mph wind gusts. My neighbor said even the pasture grass was blowing away here, but we know the guys north of here got it even worse than we did.”

The hot, dry conditions have Glover worried about his prospects this year. He planted 1,400 acres of dryland cotton but still doesn’t have a single acre up yet.

“Farmers are going to be optimistic, but people are feeling pretty negative right about now,” he said. “There are some guys in my area who have irrigated cotton that looks good, but it’s been a struggle to get it established. It’s just been a struggle all around this year.”

Steve Norman, Garza County

The hot, dry weather was doing Lynn-Garza County Farm Bureau member Steve Norman no favors to start with, but the windstorm blew away what cotton he had growing.

“It had all the makings of a tornado except the twist,” he said. “Then, a few days later, we had 40 mph winds all day, so anything that was left is just gone now.”

Norman began planting cotton around May 15. He had about 500 acres of cotton that emerged only to be covered by an inch of crust after hard rains and hail pummeled the area earlier in June.

He wasn’t able to get a scratcher in the fields in time to break up the crust and save the plants.

“We knew we lost that crop, so we just kept planting where we were at, but about a week later we had those 75-94 mph winds,” he said. “It’s been a frustrating start to the season. We’ve got some lake bottoms that we’ll need to plant some haygrazer in or something like that when that dries up.”

Norman had vineyards that were looking good early on but said he lost all his grapes to the hailstorm.

He had already replanted about 1,000 acres of cotton before the June 10 final replant date for the area.

But he was just thankful he didn’t have to replant twice like some other farmers he knew. That’s a hard blow to withstand, planting three times and still no cotton crop.

“Everybody in my area lost something,” he said. “Some people that had cover crops did a little better. In fact, I’ve got a cover crop on my drip acreage that saved the cotton I had there, so I’ll probably look at doing more of that in the future.”

Unlike the farmers north of him, Norman said sorghum wouldn’t be an option for his area.

“Sugarcane aphids take the sorghum out of the equation ,” he said. “It looks like most of us are just going to keep what we got and see what happens from here. We have a chance of rain in the forecast, so we haven’t given up hope yet.”