Writer: Norman Martin
LAS CRUCES - Just as frigid temperatures and whipping winter winds start churning across the state, cotton farmers have finally finished harvesting, pulling in better-than-expected yields in some cases.
Agricultural experts say roller-coaster temperatures earlier in the growing season lowered their expectations, but fall sunshine helped tough, drought-tolerant cotton plants finish the season on a high note.
"The crop is shaping up much better than I thought it would this summer," said Denise McWilliams, an agronomist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.
"We seemed to vacillate all season between hot and cold weather, but we warmed up for a nice long fall and that really helped finish out the crop."
This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates New Mexico production will total 92,000 bales of upland cotton and 21,000 bales of American-Pima cotton, a 5 and 7 percent increase, respectively, from a year ago. A bale of cotton weighs 480 pounds.
Pima cottons have long fibers or staple for specialty-clothing markets that require ultrasoft textures.
When McWilliams began harvesting her experimental cotton trials across the state, yields seemed poised to dip 10 to 30 percent from last year. But some farmers had tremendous yields, pushing up totals.
"We have reports from the southern valley of farmers bringing in five bales an acre on their upland cotton," she said. "That's extraordinarily good."
An average crop would be closer to three bales an acre.
These high-production farmers aren't typical, though. In general, they are exceptional managers, McWilliams said. By and large, they planted their cotton early, probably in late March and early April, and they were lucky with rain, she said.
Statewide, cotton is a preferred crop for many producers because it uses less water, pulling moisture through the top three feet of the soil.
"Cotton is a scavenger for water," McWilliams said. "Also, it grows on a diversity of lands, and we have a lot of different types of land in New Mexico. It'll grow on anything from sandy to clay soils."
New Mexico ranks among the nation's top 20 cotton producing states, with most acreage in southern New Mexico's Mesilla Valley and eastern High Plains.
Last year, the state's growers produced some 113,000 bales of upland cotton on 64,000 acres with a value of $30.1 million, according to the New Mexico Agricultural Statistics Service. The American-Pima cotton crop was 19,000 bales on 10,500 acres worth $7.2 million.
Disease problems this year were minimal, McWilliams said. Temperature fluctuations early in the season contributed to problems with the root disease verticillium wilt. Affected crops had to be babied the rest of the season with as little water stress as possible, she said.
"But in general, cotton can take those weather hits in stride and still make a crop," McWilliams said. "And that's what we did this year."
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