LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — Craig Heinrich and other South Plains cotton producers no longer have to look to the sky and pray — widespread rain arrived just in time for planting.
Heinrich, who grows irrigated cotton and the dryland type that relies solely on rainfall, said he's "tickled" by this week's rain. Officials said its value to the region's cotton crop could be in the millions of dollars.
"That's about as good as it gets," Heinrich said. "It's a godsend to get rain on all the acres, especially in May when you want to plant."
With Texas estimated to plant more than half (4.8 million acres) of the nation's total crop, getting a good start is critical. Moisture in the soil and heat are necessary for the cotton seeds to germinate.
The U.S. planting estimate of 9.4 million acres is 13 percent below last year's, with fewer acres being planted in all cotton-producing states except Georgia and Oklahoma. The largest acreage declines are expected in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
The projected tally in Texas, the nation's largest producer of the fluffy fiber, is a drop of 2.3 percent from last year.
But heavy rainfall then wound up leading the state to the second largest crop on record: 8.1 million bales.
Producers gearing up for this year's planting have another concern: input costs. Prices for fertilizer, diesel fuel and energy to run pumps to irrigate are skyrocketing.
Producers of cotton and other crops across the country must be frugal, said Steve Verett, spokesman for the Plains Cotton Growers, which serves 41 counties on western Texas' South Plains, the world's largest contiguous cotton growing patch.
"Farmers will be questioning every operation they do because of the high input costs," he said. "They're going to grow the crop, and high input costs are going to impact how they do that."
That judiciousness, Heinrich said, is a delicate balance. If a grower cuts back too much on fertilizer, it can diminish yields, he said.
"I'm very, very concerned about that," he said. "You can adjust some of that by not pumping (water onto irrigated plants) and not driving your tractors."
But cutting back on pumping is a risk, because the rain might not come.
Fortunately for farmers, it did this week. The South Plains, Rolling Plains and southern Panhandle got soaking rains Monday and Tuesday nights. At Lubbock International Airport, 2.67 inches fell Tuesday night. Some areas got as many as 5 inches, said Justin Weaver, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
Warm temperatures were forecast for the next several days, which would help the soggy fields dry out so growers can begin planting. But producers still face severe conditions through mid-June, the end of the region's hail and tornado season.
"It's a very volatile area," Verett said. "It could be a bust if we have very hard weather."