February 17, 2006
Drought: A planting dilemma
By Mike Barnett
With planting time approaching in the Texas High Plains, a lack of moisture and high input costs have farmers like Texas Farm Bureau Vice President Lloyd Arthur scratching their heads, trying to figure their best plan of action.
Arthur, who farms cotton, milo, wheat and pasture land on 3,000 acres in Crosby County, said the moisture in the soil profile is very low.
"In fact, you must go to the four or five foot range to find any moisture, and it will not stick to your hand," Arthur told fellow farmers and ranchers at the recent drought summit in San Antonio.
Arthur said his concern is not with his dryland acresabout 20 percent of his operation.
"We're at the mercy of Mother Nature with those dryland acres and when the moisture comes, we can take action," he said. "My largest concern is on the irrigated. Energy costs, fertilizer, seed and equipment repair can eat up a man's budget very quickly."
Natural gas prices, Arthur said, are skyrocketing. In 2003his last heavy year of pumping water from the Ogallala Aquifernatural gas ran $5.49 average.
"Taking the natural gas usage from 2003, that I normally use, and converting it to the price range that I have today, it would use about one-fourth of my operating budget, which is about a 74 percent increase in natural gas," he said.
Irrigation electric rates haven't increased as much as natural gas, but are still high. And seed costs are also exploding. With technology fees and other costs, Arthur estimated one-fourth of a cotton farmer's budget could be tied up in seed.
"So we're looking at up to half our operating budget in just energy costs and in your seed," he lamented.
Add in rising fertilizer and diesel costs and the spring planting puzzle becomes even harder to solve.
Arthur's dilemma is on his irrigated land...should he consider prewatering and commit to high seed costs?
"Once I've committed," he said, "watered and put that seed in the ground, I cannot stop. With the aquifer declining like it is, and usually, every summer, we're struggling to keep up with water usage for our crop. This year, with the lower soil moisture profile, I don't see this happening."
About 40 percent of Arthur's irrigated acres are under furrow irrigation.
"I'll probably have to call that dryland and not water," Arthur said, noting he may have to go to an alternative crop. "We have grown hay in the past, but not to the extent Texas needs. It may be an alternative for our area, taking some cotton acres and growing some kind of oats, haygrazer or millet."
If Mother Nature doesn't cooperate soon, Arthur predicts a lot of growers will do as he plans and convert a lot of marginal irrigated land to dryland.
"Some of those irrigated acres you see in our area, will becomeinstead of a hundred acre pivot, maybe going to a half circle," he said. "And if Mother Nature doesn't help at all, I expect maybe some irrigated land won't be planted at all."