By Elliott Blackburn
LUBBOCK, Texas (Reuters) - Punishing temperatures of more than 100 degrees left Wesley Butchey's 2,000 acres of West Texas cotton looking as if they had been zapped in a microwave.
Mother Nature followed up one afternoon with a 45-minute, 60-mile-per hour dust storm, battering tender green plants peeking out of the roasted soil.
"That next morning, it was black - just sandblasted," Butchey said of his crop.
So it goes in the Texas Panhandle, host to the world's second largest contiguous cotton patch after India, a roughly 4-million-acre sea of fluffy white fiber in the best seasons.
The region produced more than 5.5 million bales in 2010 - more than a quarter of the nation's cotton production for the year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Dry heat and high winds that helped feed almost 3 million acres of wildfires in the state so far this year seared the region's principle cash crop before it started, quickly piling up damage and bringing dire predictions for cotton production.
"You feel like there's no relief in sight," said Butchey, a veteran farmer with 54 years of experience "You try to remain optimistic, or we'd never go out in the field."
Domestic markets will have their first objective reports in August, when U.S. Department of Agriculture agents begin studying crops in the fields across West Texas, said John Robinson, a Texas A&M University professor and cotton economics specialist.
Still, nothing Robinson is hearing sounds good. "The implications are that it's going to be pushing the worst extreme, the historical worst, and I'm not challenging that at all," Robinson said.
Cotton has thrived in the dry, sunny fields of West Texas, where the summer months often deliver just enough rainfall to prod the crop along. A knee-high forest of short, green cotton plants typically begins to carpet the region in late May and June.
But drought already delivered $1.5 billion in losses before cotton plants perked up this season in West Texas. Hot, dry and windy weather starved pasture for livestock, winter wheat and other crops across rural Texas during the state's driest eight-month period on record.
Since they've begun assessing the damage last week, crop insurance agents for ARMTech Insurance Services, Inc. had seen no acreage without expensive irrigation systems that have produced anything, claims supervisor Steven Fortenberry said.
More than half of the region's farmers rely on irrigation systems for their crops, but even they will struggle in July without help from rain, he said.
"They might be in worse shape than the dry-land guys right now," Fortenberry said. "They put so much money into it already, and their wells aren't able to keep up with no relief."
Damages could pile up late in the year when gins and warehouse operations hurt through a low-yielding harvest, Robinson said.
And while the grim stories might rile U.S. commodities markets, there's no guarantee of high prices for the farmers who do weather the summer, he said.
A U.S. cotton shortage would not mean much in the face of big crops in India, China and Brazil, Robinson said.
"They'll use up their supplies first, and whatever we harvest is going to go sit in a warehouse," Robinson said.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Greg McCune)