Despite a long, drawn out harvest for many Southern Plains cotton growers this winter, yields and prices have been good enough to convince many farmers at the northern edge of the cotton belt to continue increasing acreage in 2019.
"The bottom line is it's making growers a lot of money, and that's the reason people are going to it," said Rex Friesen, an agronomist and public relations manager with Southern Kansas Cotton Growers Cooperative based at Anthony. "I tell people who are interested it's expensive, it's risky, it's higher management, but in the end it's been paying out way better than anything else the last several years."
Seth Byrd, Oklahoma State University's statewide cotton specialist, confirmed he is hearing a similar sentiment expressed by many growers.
"We could have had a better year in some respects, but at end of the day, the feedback I'm getting is that cotton is looking like the best thing for a lot of them," he said.
In Oklahoma alone, wheat lost an estimated 400,000 acres to cotton the past two years, a trend that seems likely to continue in 2019, especially since wet weather made it difficult to get any winter crops planted.
Pre-season surveys conducted by the cotton industry show Kansas and Oklahoma farmers are preparing to plant more cotton, with Oklahoma growers alone expected to exceed 825,000 acres, which could set a state record. Kansas acreage is projected to top 200,000 acres.
For now, though, many growers are still waiting to wrap up the current season, after wet fields and processing delays pushed harvest back later than normal across the region, Friesen said.
"We normally finish harvest before Christmas and then ginning goes on into January," he said. "Because of the size of the crop last year we didn't finish ginning until mid-April and now this year it's going to be even later than that."
Most of the Kansas crop has finally been harvested, but many growers are still waiting on the gins to analyze the quality, which will determine the ultimate price they receive.
"If they can hang on and be patient, I think they'll be very happy with how it turns out," Friesen said.
The biggest discount farmers are likely to see will be due to off-coloring, Friesen said.
"Due to all the rain, the fiber is not going to be the consistent brilliant white that we've grown accustomed to seeing in this area," he explained.
Cotton is graded on six factors, which include color, fiber strength, fiber length (or staple), maturity (or micronaire), uniformity and leaf content (or contaminate level.)
"Fiber maturity and quality has been fine to excellent, and some farmers have even been getting a premium for that," Friesen said. "But any one of these quality factors can affect the price significantly."
Meanwhile, infrastructure in the region is still struggling to catch up to the surge of new demand. Expansion and construction delays at five gins across southern Kansas have pushed back processing wait-times.
"This is the year of growing pains, but next year it should be a lot better," Friesen said.
Baler-harvesters have been coming on-line at a fast clip, too. Friesen estimated at least three-dozen of the $800,000 machines have been purchased new or used around the state, with others being put into operation in northern Oklahoma.
Trent Milacek, the northwest area ag economist for Oklahoma State University, has been helping farmers run the numbers as they decide which crops to plant in 2019.
"When you take into account the yields farmers have seen on cotton the last two or three years, with averages of around 800 pounds per acre, it looks like a pretty good opportunity to make some money," he said.
That's not a slam-dunk. In dry years, the area's cotton average has been closer to 500 pounds per acre.
"That's where you start to worry about whether you can breakeven or not," Milacek said.
Drought tends to be the biggest threat for area growers, but another is just getting used to working with a new crop, he said.
In addition, it costs twice as much to grow cotton as it does wheat, and that can be an issue for farmers when attempting to secure a line of credit, he noted.
"It's a big risk-big reward kind of thing," he said.
Even so, cotton appears to be on the upswing while interest in other crops is fading.
"Wheat is getting to be more of a rotational crop rather than the primary crop, which is something we haven't seen before in Oklahoma," he said. "The price just isn't favorable for wheat to gain a bunch of acres at this point, and with other options like winter canola and sorghum, we're kind of seeing the same thing."