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When Mother Nature Doubles Down

As part of their daily routine, farmers stand in the fields looking up at the sky to try to determine what cards the weather is holding. They can’t control what is going to happen, but they can make decisions to prepare for the short-term effects or adjust their practices for what might happen in future growing seasons.

carroll smith

Carroll Smith

On this month’s cover story, Shane McLain, who farms cotton in Castro County, Texas, likes to start planting around May 1.

This year, after he got the seed in the ground, a 2 1/2-inch rain fell, and the temperature unexpectedly dropped to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and stayed there for a while. Because the cotton refused to germinate, he had to replant every acre.

McLain says the crop is now a little late, but he plans to manage it accordingly to makeup for the setback.

Another weather phenomenon McLain has to deal with are the wild West Texas winds that cut across cotton fields with nothing in sight to break their force. McLain, who calls himself a “progressive agriculturist,” tried a new practice this year to provide some extra protection for the young cotton seedlings.

For the first time, he flew on a cover of radishes and wheat about three weeks before harvest. He then made his last irrigation pass to get the crop started. After the cotton was harvested and the cover had good growth, he grazed it, moved the cows off and then planted cotton back into the cover with the hope of warding off the detrimental effects of the harsh wind.

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Hurricanes are another example of weather that can turn a cotton crop upside down. In this month’s “My Turn” column, Georgia cotton farmer Ken Hall says his cotton has endured three of them at harvest since 1985. The effects of the most recent one — Hurricane Michael in 2018 — is still fresh on the minds of everyone whose crop was still in the fields when it struck.

Hall says he was picking his best crop ever — 1,500- to 1,600-pound cotton — prior to the storm. When he got back in the field to harvest the last 300 acres, the yield had dropped to 400 pounds per acre.

To try to get a jump on a hurricane that may be lurking in the wings this year, he got more aggressive on the front end and started planting cotton on April 4. Hall says he may be flirting with boll rot and hardlock, but he is willing to play his early crop card to try to get the cotton in as quickly as possible.

As any cotton farmer in any region of the Cotton Belt will confirm, Mother Nature can be a formidable opponent. But farmers have incredible ingenuity and determination to overcome the odds. It’s always a battle to the end, but my money is on the farmers.