Growers opt to plant sorghum over cotton


Drought and deflated market prices are likely to have a negative effect on this year’s Rio Grande Valley cotton crop, agriculture experts say.

The price of cotton in the world market during spring planting was the main factor for local growers, who say it helped them decide to plant grain sorghum instead of cotton.

Too, sorghum is more drought tolerant than cotton, area growers say, and given the lingering dry spell, sorghum was a logical choice.

Yet a third factor was China’s huge stockpile of cotton, which could dump that backlog onto the market, said Danielle Sekula, integrated pest management specialist for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Services in Weslaco.

The amount of cotton planted this year is less than last year, with 86,000 acres in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, down substantially from 130,000 acres last year, Sekula said.

Luis Ribera, a Texas A&M associate professor and economist, also based in Weslaco, said market price probably was the most important factor for most farmers.

When planting season arrived this year, he said, growers already were worried about the lack of rain, along with a historical insecurity about access to irrigation water –

none of which pointed to a successful, high-quality cotton crop.

The only real relief for Valley growers with a cotton crop that fails to yield is filing a claim on their crop insurance, Ribera said.

Because of the drought, many cotton crops are not growing properly and insurance adjusters now are out in the fields, assessing the damage, he said.

“I usually get numbers from the risk management agency on failed acres as part of the crop insurance that the producer has to purchase,” Ribera said. “But the numbers of failed acres are still dribbling down. We haven’t had a final number.”

Overall, he said, the area has about 80,000 to 90,000 total acres of cotton.

“Over the next few weeks, we’re going to get the numbers of failed acreage from those,” Ribera said.

Much of the grain sorghum being grown is used to produce fuel, he said, and sorghum’s market price is fairly steady.

“They (area farmers) have the choice of cotton, sorghum and corn, mainly cotton and sorghum,” Ribera said. “But I think the main driver in what to produce is mainly price, so that’s why we see more grain sorghum than cotton.”

Sugar cane, another crop that has been important to the Valley economy, also is used for fuel but because it is a water hog, yields will be affected by drought, he said.

“We don’t produce that much corn here,” he said. “The main problem with corn down here is aflatoxin (a dangerous and toxic fungus). Our alternative to that is sorghum … which is not very susceptible to aflatoxin.”

Brad Cowan, Hidalgo County agent for Texas AgriLife Extension Services, concurs that this year’s cotton outlook is dismal.

“It’ll be real low,” he said. “A lot of cotton that we planted didn’t come up because of the dry weather. We don’t know yet what that acreage is looking like because the insurance adjusters are still doing their thing, figuring out what can be kept and what can be plowed up.

“We know that it’s going to be a lot that will be failed.”

Price was the driving factor in planting an alternative crop like grain sorghum, Cowan said.

“Leading up to the planting season, the price of cotton had weakened,” he said.

The impact of the drought on agriculture production cannot be minimized, he said.

“You always plant for the drought when you see it coming. You never really know.

“Prices can improve and it can rain. So, these guys (growers) have a lot of unknowns when they plant. They have to take in all their best information and make a judgment call on the best strategy for any given year,” Cowan said. “All the forecasters were talking drought before we planted this crop.”

Weighing all the factors mentioned, Valley growers chose to grow less cotton this year.

“I think it’s just a combination of the forecast of drought and the forecast of a somewhat weakened price of cotton,” Cowan said.