Well, the Coastal Bend counties fortunately missed a direct hit from another hurricane. That is not to say some losses to the area crops didn't occur, but we were luckier than our farming friends in the Rio Grande Valley.
Fewer than 100 bales of cotton had been sent to one of the valley's major regional cotton warehouses before Dolly hit; a clear indication that the Valley's cotton harvest was just getting started. Some of the farms near the center of the storm's path in Willacy and northern Cameron counties endured up to 12 hours of hurricane-force winds that ranged from 75 to 100 mph. To say the least, not much is left of their cotton crops, or for that matter, unharvested corn.
When the storm and its drenching rains finally made way through the cropland areas of the northern portion of the valley, crop damage was extensive. As Dolly moved inland through the Brush Country counties toward Laredo, heavy rains of the "drought busting" kind were reported in a number of locations including northern Hidalgo and Starr Counties as well as the Hebberonville area.
In the Coastal Bend, cotton harvest was also getting started about the time Dolly worked her way across the Yucatan and westward through the Gulf of Mexico. In the day and a half before Dolly made landfall, Nueces County Extension Agent Jeff Stapper and I surveyed 403 fields in Nueces county (approximately 10 percent of the total cropland). That pre-storm survey indicated that 81.3 percent of the Nueces County grain sorghum, just over 50 percent of the corn, and approximately 7 percent of the cotton crop had been harvested. After the winds calmed down on Thursday afternoon, July 24, we again set out to survey the extent of storm damage by cris-crossing Nueces County and examining the condition of unharvested crops.
As you might expect, some areas were in better shape than others. As a general rule, cotton fields that had not been defoliated had significantly fewer locks of cotton on the ground and hanging from bolls than those previously defoliated that were awaiting harvest equipment.
The highest winds and heaviest rainfall were in the far southeastern portion of Nueces County from Chapman Ranch westward along FM 70 toward Bishop. Reports from farmers in that area indicated rainfall totals of 6 to 10 inches. Rainfall amounts diminished inland. Four to 5 inches were fairly common measurements in the central and southwestern portions of the county.
The far northwestern portion of the county west of Bluntzer and north of Agua Dulce received lesser amounts in the 2 3/4 to 3-inch range. Still, a mighty good rain for July in South Texas, especially for those with cattle in drought parched pastures! Hay producers anxiously awaiting enough moisture to stimulate grass growth to allow for the first hay cutting of the year also benefited.
It is too early to predict the full extent of cotton losses in Nueces County. The quantity of lint and seed blown to the ground is the most visible effect. Those fallen locks of cotton are production that is lost forever. Since both lint and seed make up a lock of cotton, the value of both must be considered. Based on locks of cotton lost from bolls on plants in samples taken on Monday, July 28 in a couple of the survey fields, lint losses were typically in the 25 to 60 pounds per acre range.
One non-defoliated field growing a very storm-proof cotton variety with just over 85 percent open bolls had only 28 pounds of lint loss. Just 4 miles away in a defoliated field with 99 percent open bolls southwest of Violet where harvest was in progress when the storm hit, the lint loss was calculated to be in the range of 58 pounds per acre based on the number of locks blown to the ground.
In addition to the physical losses of pounds of lint and seed, cotton farmers are certain to experience discounts in color grades, as well as, other deductions from "foreign matter content," including green re-growth leaves, grass and bark from stems and branches. These deductions commonly occur following big rainfall events.
Grade and quality discounts could range from 5 to 15 cents per pound of lint depending on the degree of weathering and foreign matter content contained in a given sample.
Wind and rainstorms cause cotton bolls to loose their "fluff." This factor reduces the harvest efficiency of picking machines. That means the more twisted, tangled and matted cotton has become, even if it is retained on the standing stalk, the more difficult it is for the spindles on a picking machine to extract all the locks of cotton from the stalk.
We attempted to calculate the potential dollar losses that a farmer with an acre of cotton that had sustained a 50 pound per acre lint loss might be incurring. Those negative amounts started adding up in a hurry. If the cotton was contracted at a 67 cent per lint pound price for base grade cotton, the loss of 50 pounds would be $33.50. The 80 pounds of seed in those fallen locks is likely to be worth as much $14 per acre with today's projected seed prices. If you factor in only a 7-cent per pound grade and quality discount on the remaining harvest able cotton with a yield of 500 pound to the acre, another $25 could be tacked on to the loss column. When all the hidden losses are figured, a 50 pound lint loss can quickly add up to $72.50 per acre. If this scenario were the case on as much as 22,000 acres (approximately one-third of Nueces County's cotton acres), the farmers losses would amount to approximately $1.6 million. That is not counting those fields with lower levels of losses under 50 pounds of lint, or those with heavier degrees of losses above 60 pound lint per acre.
But wait, let's not forget those fields where the remaining cotton in the field falls short of making the minimum per acre charge many custom picking machine operators have implemented due to high fuel cost. Some growers may be facing another $10 to $15 per acre cost on those lower yielding fields.
Farming is a tight margin business. Lint losses of 6 to 8 percent may not sound like a lot, but most seasons within that small percentage range lies the difference between profit and loss. In a year with a very dry spring and only modest yield potential in most area cotton fields, it may be difficult to break-even with as little as a 5 percent loss of lint this season.
In the Coastal Bend, "King Cotton's" crown has been tarnished a bit by recent weather calamities. But it avoided total destruction and we suffered no loss of life or major physical damages to homes, building and utilities. For that, we should be truly thankful.