The weather is getting colder — and so are crops.
First-freeze dates and intensities have varied throughout the South Plains, bringing mixed results for producers across the region.
The Muleshoe area — one of the hardest hit by cold weather this month — suffered a couple of early frosts that halted leaf production in many plants. Temperatures dropped as low as 21 degrees the morning of Oct. 19 in some parts of Bailey County.
Curtis Preston, agriculture agent for the Bailey County branch of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, said most crops were developed enough by that time not to suffer significantly.
“Even though it was a little early for us, the crops were still far enough along it didn’t do any damage,” he said. “It helped speed up the process of drying the plant down for harvest.”
Kelly Kettner farms multiple crops north of Muleshoe. He initially thought his cotton was unaffected, partly because of the boll-opening chemical he sprayed when he heard the forecast. A closer look, though, showed a possible impact on both quality and quantity.
“I do think the freeze did cut off some yield potential on the cotton,” he said. “… I think it hurt the development of some of the upper bolls.”
While Kettner’s cotton fields still have yet to see a stripper, most Bailey County sorghum and corn have been harvested, he and Preston said.
The freeze sped the sorghum harvest by making the crop dry more rapidly and encouraging growers to remove it promptly, Kettner said. His pumpkins harvested as some of the best he’s seen, he added. They can withstand occasional low temperatures, he said, but were mostly grown anyway when the freeze arrived.
A freeze is defined as a dip in temperature below 32 degrees. But if one arrives that barely meets that standard and doesn’t last more than a few hours, it won’t necessarily kill everything in its path.
Such was the case with Lubbock County’s first freeze. It came Oct. 19, well ahead of the county’s average date of Oct. 31.
Ron McQueen, a Lubbock-based meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said a likely culprit was a cold Canadian air mass blowing from the northwest to the southeast.
“We had some very cold weather for this early in the year that was developing out of Canada, and the flow was right to move it into us,” he said.
Another cause of the freeze is linked to drought. Soil accumulates heat from the sun in the daytime but tends to lose it more quickly at night if it has low moisture content, McQueen said,
A hard freeze visited the South Plains last year even earlier than this season — Oct. 8, 2012.
“Last year’s was incredibly early,” said Mary Jane Buerkle, communications director for Plains Cotton Growers. “There was a lot of damage to the crop.”
Because freezes generally stop further plant development, their timing can either make or break the crop. Too soon before harvest, and hard freezes can devastate entire fields.
But if the plants are fully grown, those 32-or-below temperatures can actually help. When a cotton plant freezes, for example, its leaves wither, making for easier removal.
Some growers take advantage of freezes to save the expense of chemical defoliant, Buerkle said.
And with harvest still underway, some producers are still determining the extent of this season’s freeze damage.
One of them, Brad Heffington, farms just north of Littlefield. Sorghum and corn were slowed, he said, but not destroyed. A successful September helped bring crops to a good maturity level when temperatures dropped to 28 degrees on Oct. 18, he said.
As for cotton, harvest and grading will provide answers.
“We’re just trying to see how much of the cotton’s going to hold up,” he said. “We’re not sure exactly what it did, but it probably had an adverse effect on quality. We’re hoping it didn’t hurt the yield much.”
A hard freeze is less readily defined than a standard freeze but is generally several degrees colder and longer in duration.
Lubbock’s forecast for the week ahead doesn’t call for temperatures below the upper 30s, McQueen said. But avoiding a hard freeze the next week or so doesn’t mean continuing to avoid them as winter approaches.
“It’s coming up,” McQueen said. “We’re seeing those lows routinely. It’s just a matter of weeks until we see more.”