Weather in South Texas instrumental in helping farmers avoid pest pressure

by Rod Santa Ana, Texas A&M AgriLife

South Texas row crop producers are likely to answer with a smile when asked the age old ice-breaker, “Hot enough for you?”

Plentiful rainfall late last year combined with mostly hot, dry weather since have helped growers produce vigorous crops of cotton, grain sorghum and corn and healthy yields, according to experts with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

“We’re winding down a very good crop year for the Rio Grande Valley,” said Brad Cowan, AgriLife Extension agent for Hidalgo County. “We had a lot of rain last fall and winter that replenished deep soil moisture and contributed to the higher-than-normal yields for grain sorghum and corn crops.”

The cotton crop harvest of almost 130,000 acres is currently underway and is expected to produce above average yields, he said.

Danielle Sekula-Ortiz, the AgriLife Extension integrated pest management agent in Weslaco, said the heat helped crops mature quickly, allowing growers to harvest before insect pressures could build.

“Unlike last year, even late-planted grain sorghum matured quickly this year so that by late June most of it had been harvested,” she said. “We know that populations of sugarcane aphids peak on grain sorghum twice per season. Growers were able to control the aphids with a spray application for the first peak, and many avoided a second spray by harvesting before the second peak in late June, July.”

Sekula-Ortiz said the Valley’s acreage of grain sorghum this year was lower than average at about 300,000 acres compared to the normal 400,000 acres. She said many growers turned to corn instead, which also did well.

“Corn yields were excellent, even in the dryland acres of the McCook area,” she said. “Grain sorghum also yielded well, both dryland and irrigated.”

Sekula-Ortiz said irrigated grain sorghum crops yielded an average of 7,000 pounds per acre, while dryland fields yielded as high as 4,000 pounds per acre.

“A lot depended on grower control of the sugarcane aphids,” she said. “Most growers had to spray only once this year. Those who were proactive and stayed ahead of the game, spraying before populations got too high, did well.”

But for those who didn’t treat in a timely fashion, yields were affected by as much as 1,500 pounds per acre, she said.

“I’m happy that grain sorghum growers didn’t have to struggle with gummed-up harvesting equipment this year from high populations of sugarcane aphids.”

The lack of rain also kept insect pressures relatively low in cotton, she said.

“Cotton started off with higher-than-normal numbers of thrips, and flea hoppers were moderate, but the main pest of our cotton crop was tarnished plant bugs,” Sekula-Ortiz said. “They tend to puncture small immature cotton bolls and stain the lint, which reduces its value. And whiteflies were seen late in the season, but most growers were able to defoliate and will harvest their crop before they become a serious issue.”

The atmospheric “puzzle pieces” fell together nicely to help produce the area’s healthy summer crops, according to Barry Goldsmith, the warning coordinator meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Brownsville.

“I believe the following trends for the past nine months made all the difference,” he said. “A wet September/October, dry and mild January through February, increasing rainfall from March to May — even though temperatures were warmer than average — then the perfect conditions for crop drying from mid-June through the end of July.”

Goldsmith said a timely atmospheric “river” of tropical moisture-laden air surged across the region in October, leaving rainfall of three to six times the average. Growers might expect rainfall to increase again in August as “climatologically the average daily rainfall increases dramatically between the 15th and the end of the month.”

But there are signals that suggest “a drier than average August and September, followed by a dry autumn and winter, but time will tell,” he said.

While the weather has cooperated, world market forces do not look encouraging for corn and grain sorghum producers.

Dr. Mark Welch, AgriLife Extension grains marketing economist, College Station, said increased corn acreage nationwide and favorable growing conditions have negatively affected corn and grain sorghum prices, and a decrease in export demand for U.S. grain sorghum isn’t helping.

“That decrease and a record U.S. grain sorghum yield last year and good yields forecast for 2016 have combined to push grain sorghum prices lower,” he said.

Prices this year are between $5 and $6 per hundredweight, down from last year’s $7 to $8 per hundredweight, a drop of 25 to 30 percent, he said.

Cotton producers, however, see hope in rising lint prices that may hold up, depending on the weather.

Dr. John Robinson, an AgriLife Extension agriculture economist in College Station, said that after trending for almost two years in the range of 60 cent per pound of lint, New York cotton futures prices recently rose eight cents per pound.

Robinson attributes the rise to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “more bullish forecast of world demand in their July supply/demand report.”

He said prices could stay at this higher level depending on the influence in the near term of potential rains in West Texas in the next week or so.

“If that happens, we could easily have a million more bales in Texas, and prices may weaken,” he said. “Without a widespread rain, we could easily have a million fewer bales, and futures prices may remain longer above 70 cents.”

Corn and grain sorghum growers in the Coastal Bend area of the state are wrapping up their harvests and also did well this year, according to Jason Ott, the AgriLife Extension agent for agriculture in Nueces County.

“Most growers reported fairly consistent yields across the field,” he said. “While many indicate yields were lower than they had hoped for, they are still well above long-term averages.”

Ott said reports of 100 bushels per acre corn yields were consistent, with several fields reporting much higher yields, and grain sorghum yields were in the mid-5,000 pounds-per-acre range.

“Cotton is maturing quickly,” he said. “A few have started picking, and good yields of about two bales per acre are expected, though weaker spots can be observed in the lower areas of many fields where rainwater accumulated earlier in the season.”

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