HARLINGEN — For the growers who gambled on cotton this year, it looks like there’ll be a payoff.
Rio Grande Valley farmers invested heavily in cotton this growing season, planting 190,279 acres across the Valley. Last year, growers planted 125,917 acres, so this year’s cotton acreage is up 51 percent.
That Valley cotton harvest in 2016 was worth about $118 million, said Dr. Samuel D. Zapata, an assistant professor and extension economist with Texas A&M AgriLife.
Decisions to plant more cotton acreage were made last spring, at a time cotton prices had seen a rise from 2015 by about 13 percent. By contrast, prices for other crops, like corn, were down.
About 75 percent of this year’s cotton crop in the Valley has been picked, with some of it already ginned. The rest of it is either picked and wrapped in plastic waiting to be ginned, or is still in the field.
“They’re blowing and going,” Brad Cowan, AgriLife Extension Agent in Hidalgo County and an expert on Valley cotton, said of growers running their cotton-pickers.
Weather still a factor
As Cowan spoke, he was watching the weather radar on Thursday afternoon, and what he was seeing didn’t look good.
“There’ll be some folks who will have to stop picking this afternoon, but hopefully it won’t be too widespread,” he said as the radar screen popped green, yellow, orange and red, displaying the remnant rains of Hurricane Franklin.
“I hate to see that,” he said. “Everybody needs rain right now — unless you’re a cotton farmer.”
Cowan said a little rain isn’t a problem at this point in the cotton growing season. If it dries out quickly, cotton bolls are none the worse for a little wetting, and all of the crop should be picked by Sept. 1 anyway.
“But when we get high winds and heavy rain, some of that cotton will wind up on the ground, and the cotton picker can’t get it,” he said. “It’s best if it just doesn’t rain at all when it’s so close to harvest.”
What about yields?
Cowan said overall yields probably won’t match what growers were able to produce last year, and in fact yields have been yo-yoing like crazy, depending on the area.
In Texas A&M AgriLife’s crop report for South Texas last week, “yield reports varied from 600 to 1,200 pounds per acre.”
“I wouldn’t expect as high an average yield across all the acres as we had last year, but it will be a really good crop,” he said.
Cowan said dryland cotton — acreage which is not irrigated — is more advanced at this stage of the growing season than irrigated cotton.
“A high percentage of the crop that’s grown in Willacy County is in, because of their higher percentage of dry rather than irrigated cotton,” he said. “There’s some late cotton over there, but overall they’re probably farther along.”
Irrigated vs. dryland
Most of the Valley’s cotton is irrigated, but just having ground water to pump down the rows of a field isn’t the answer for everything.
Much of the agricultural-use ground water in the Valley has a high salt content, which can reduce yields in field crops.
“It helps to irrigate, don’t get me wrong,” Cowan said, “but there’s no substitute for some good rain in there as well.”
As far as fiber quality goes — the better the fiber the higher cotton sells for — Cowan said he hadn’t seen any reports coming back on fiber quality for 2017 cotton in the Valley. Still, he thinks it will grade well.
Recent ginning reports provide only the total number of bales ginned but do not provide data on fiber quality. A report on ginning last week found 34,500 bales were ginned the previous week, and 98,000 bales ginned so far this year.
Last year in the Valley, 290,000 bales of cotton were ginned.
Time to gin
“Ginning always lags behind harvesting because we can harvest so much faster than we can gin it,” he said. “The main thing is to get it in the gin yard and its pretty safe then — those modules can get rained on there, and they’ll be OK.”
Cowan said he feels the season will be a good one for cotton growers — if they can get the entire crop out of the fields “before we get any kind of tropical weather moving in here.”
Driving past the Valley’s gins, already the yards are filling up with yellow-wrapped cotton bales, or increasingly, bales wrapped in bright pink plastic.
“I had to ask about that, too,” Cowan said of the bright pink covers. “A ginner told me it has to do with breast cancer awareness — like the NFL.”
2017 RGV Cotton Acreage
Cameron – 71,060
Hidalgo – 42,687
Willacy – 71,699
RGV – 190,279
Source: USDA-Farm Service Agency
Cotton acreage in Texas
2016 – 5,667,000 acres
2017 – 6,617,000 acres
Rio Grande Valley cotton acreage
2016 – 125,917 acres
2017 – 190,279 acres
Cotton acreage in U.S.
2016 – 10,072,500 acres
2017 –12,055,000 acres