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Texas cotton prospects dimming

Lubbock_Cotton producer Doug Hlavaty looks across his South Plains fields and sees the potential for trouble.

The region has gone 60 days without significant rain, humidity has been low and windy conditions have prevailed since early January. The gusty conditions - with winds sometimes blowing more than 65 mph - have sucked valuable moisture from fields.

"Right now we couldn't plant at all," Hlavaty said. "I could use a rain, a good rain."

It's still about 10 weeks until farmers start planting in the world's largest contiguous cotton patch, but the arid, windy conditions already have them fretting.

While lack of rainfall isn't entirely unusual for the South Plains this time of year, the heavy winds don't usually come for another month or so. The wind robs moisture on the soil's surface, damaging the subsurface moisture that newly planted cottonseed needs to germinate and grow.

"We're starting to get concerned about the top layer of soil crusting and turning to sand when strong winds blow," said Roger Haldenby of the Plains Cotton Growers, which serves a 41-county region on the South Plains. "Without future rain, that drying continues to deepen."

Last year, heavy rainfall throughout Texas, the nation's leading cotton-producing state, led to the second-largest crop on record last year: 8.1 million bales, 5.3 million from the South Plains.

Dry conditions are worse for dryland cotton producers, who rely on rainfall only to grow the plants. But switching to other crops such as corn doesn't make much sense because those crops would need more water.

"Cotton is kind of an arid-tolerant plant, and it's the ideal crop choice for this area," Haldenby said. Still, "Whatever you're going to plant you're going to need moisture."

For irrigated cotton producers, who have the capability to pump water as a supplement to precipitation, a lack of rain "is just going to cost us more money," Hlavaty said. They'll have higher input costs to pay to pump water from the Ogallala Aquifer, the main source of agricultural water in West Texas.

Hlavaty plants half dryland, half irrigated on his 5,000 acres in Lubbock.

With a strong La Nina influencing weather patterns, the chance of heavy rain isn't good, weather officials said. The last significant rainfall came Dec. 11, dew points have dipped below zero, and humidity has reached single digits.

"So we're below normal, but not that much below normal," National Weather Service meteorologist Justin Weaver said. "There's plenty of time to catch up."

If conditions improve, it will help Texas growers who are expected to account for about half - 4.8 million acres - of the nation's 9.5 million acres planted this year, the National Cotton Council announced Friday.

Texas' tally is a drop of 2.3 percent from last year; the U.S. number is a 12 percent decrease from 2007.

___

On the Net:

Plains Cotton Growers: http://www.plainscotton.org

National Cotton Council: http://www.nationalcottoncouncil.com

Betsy Blaney, AP Writer © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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