A few minutes of torrential rain and battering hail turned thousands of acres of West Texas cotton into shredded bits of soggy white fluff last Thursday (Oct. 21) as a devastating storm moved from northern Yoakum County through parts of Terry, Hockley, Lubbock, Lynn and Crosby Counties.

Estimates of economic losses are still being evaluated, according to association and Texas AgriLife Extension sources, but some counties may suffer as much as 50 percent loss. With cotton currently selling for more than $1 per pound and farmers anticipating a good, if not a bumper crop, financial losses will be significant.

“It’s bad,” says Terry County Extension agent Chris Bishop. He says the area from Gomez to Tokio to Wellman “was hit extremely hard. Losses in that area could range from 50 percent to 100 percent in some fields. East of Brownfield, we’ve not seen as much damage.”

Bishop says more accurate estimates may be possible by mid-week but three days after the storm he was figuring overall county loss at 50 percent of a 250,000-acre crop.

“It was not a bumper crop, but it was a good one,” Bishop says,” and would have been the third largest crop on record. Hail wiped out a lot of it.”

He says the storm covered a swath about 25 miles wide from Wellman to Ropesville.

He says significant peanut acreage was also heavily damaged. “A lot of peanuts had been dug,” he says. “Those acres were hurt badly.”

Steve Verett, executive vice-president of Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., says damage estimates are hard to figure. “In Terry County, planted acreage typically runs about 250,000 and with low abandonment this year, farmers likely had close to that still in the field,” he says.

“Half of the Terry county crop might not be a total loss, but for the farmers who were hard hit the effect will be severe. Any loss estimates now would be just a guess.”

Growers heavily invested

Verett says the timing couldn’t have been much worse for West Texas. “Farmers had already invested just about every cost except harvest into the crop. A lot had been defoliated.

“This storm proves that it’s never too late to hail in the High Plains of Texas. And the crop is never safe until it’s tied up and in a bale.”

Verett agrees that the 2010 crop was less than the bumper many observers expected earlier in the year. “We never know what the crop is going to be,” he says. “Last week we were hearing from farmers who said cotton was not making what they had expected.”

But early harvest, he says, can be deceiving.

“Consequently, we may never know how much this storm cost us. Cotton production numbers are moving targets until the crop is ginned. It’s a work in progress until we can count the bales.”

National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates put the High Plains crop at 6.16 million bales. Verett says it’s too early to estimate how much that will drop following storm damage.

A PCG report indicates rainfall totals on Oct. 21 of as little as 1 inch to more than 5 inches in various locations, with scattered hail. The epicenter appears to be a corridor from northern Yoakum County, Texas, through southern portions of Lubbock County and northwestern Lynn County. This area includes a significant portion of Terry County as well.

Additional isolated events

Verett says reports also indicate damage to acreage outside of the area to the southwest of Lubbock with additional isolated events to the north and east of Lubbock in Hale, Floyd and Crosby County and south along the Lubbock/Lynn County line.

“The thing to remember right now is that it will take time to figure out how much acreage has been significantly impacted by the events of the last few days,” says Verett. “Much of the acreage that was bound for harvest in the storm damaged areas is still likely to see a harvester running in them, even though yield and quality may be impacted.

“For the growers that lost crops completely or lost a significant amount of yield potential as a result of this week’s weather there is little that can be done to take the sting out of the loss. As a grower myself, I can attest to the fact this hurts.”

Bishop says insurance will help some farmers survive the loss but may not be sufficient to save them all. “Insurance is great, but farmers had a lot invested in the crop this late in the season,” he says. “A lot of producers who were on the bubble may be over the edge. This loss will put others in a tight spot and may affect loans for next year.”

Verett says the storm may have had an influence on cotton market jumps Friday and Monday.

“In a year as tight as this, it doesn’t take much to set the market off,” he says. “Markets were up 400 points on Friday and 500 points Monday.”

But the storm damage is not likely the only catalyst for market jumps. “China production may also be lower than expected and the world is tremendously short of cotton. Anything that disturbs the current crop is magnified.”

Verett remains optimistic about prospects for the High Plains cotton crop. “The bottom line is, barring any other unforeseen weather, we still have a good crop.”

He says even farmers who sell cotton in marketing pools or who contracted cotton early, should see profitable prices this year. “It should be a good year for cotton farmers. Prices will be better than we’ve gotten the last several years.”

rsmith@farmpress.com