AP Agriculture Writer

LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) South Plains cotton producer Shawn Holladay relies on spring rains to give the fluffy fiber he grows a shot at making it to harvest.

But despite good humidity and numerous storm systems in the area, rain showers the past month or so have been spotty across the world's largest growing patch, which this year will plant more than half the nation's acres.

"It doesn't look like a drought, but we're not getting any rain," said the 40-year-old farmer who doesn't use an irrigation system for 90 percent of his acreage. "We've put (planting) off as long as we can."

Holladay can't wait much longer to plant. A June 10 deadline looms for he and others who farm in the southern portion of the South Plains to be eligible for crop insurance claims should cotton seeds fail to germinate and grow. June 5 is the deadline for farmers in the Lubbock area.

Across other parts of the nation's Cotton Belt rain and wet field conditions the past month had kept some producers out of their fields particularly in states east of Louisiana.

"They had dry days last week that allowed them to get in," said Gary Adams, spokesman for the Memphis, Tenn.-based National Cotton Council. "They made progress. They're still behind, just not as far behind."

Planting deadlines have come and gone in most of the nation's cotton-producing states.

U.S. farmers expect to plant 8.8 million acres of cotton this year, their fewest since 1983.

Growers in Texas, the nation's leading producer of cotton, were forecast to plant 4.72 million acres, the fewest since 1989 when 4.73 million acres were planted. About 3.5 million of Texas acres this year will be planted on the South Plains.

"With Texas being 50 percent or more we're going to pay a lot of attention to the weather through the growing season," Adams said. "It's starting off dry and has got a challenge in front."

It's already a lost cause in South Texas and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where cotton farmers plant earlier in the year. Most of their acres were declared lost due to extreme and exceptional drought, the two worst stages of dryness, in recent months.

Fortunately for growers, some production costs have dropped from last year. Diesel prices and fertilizer costs (the latter down a third from last year's peak) aren't crippling farmers' operations, Adams said.

Rains for planting are no guarantee for a good crop, though. Timely rains and hot temperatures during the 120-day growing season on the South Plains are critical to high yields.

Planting rain "just keeps you in the game," said Shawn Wade, spokesman for the Plains Cotton Growers, which serves a 41-county region on the South Plains. "It puts you in a position to help to take advantage of a later rainfall. We're just biding our time and hoping for the best."

Holladay has farmed cotton for 23 years and knows the weather can swing wildly. Producers who get enough rain to grow on dryland, which relies on rainfall only to grow, and irrigated acres face the prospect of hail storms through the middle of July.

"It could go any way from here," said Holladay, who farms near Lamesa, 60 miles south of Lubbock. "A farmer's got to be optimistic or he wouldn't farm."

On the Net:

Plains Cotton Growers:

National Cotton Council:

Betsy Blaney has been the AP's Lubbock correspondent since 2001 and regularly reports on agricultural issues.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.