Despite what appears to many to be an impending disaster, cotton growers faced with a deteriorating cotton crop shouldn't hit the panic button quite yet, according to Herb Willcutt, an agricultural engineer at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.
The good news, he says, is that the bulk of this year's crop has yet to be defoliated. “Even though a lot of the 2001 cotton crop is beyond the 60 percent open threshold for defoliation, growers have resisted the temptation or recommendation to apply defoliants. Whether this decision was made because the gins were not completely ready, the pickers were not yet ready or growers didn't feel like it was time to defoliate, delaying defoliation may minimize quality losses.
“Any unopened bolls will blend with those with sprouted seed to help color grade if favorable weather conditions provide us with the chance to get these bolls opened and picked,” Willcutt says. “Hard locks and boll rot, however, are likely to continue to cost yield and reduce quality until the ground dries, temperatures and humidity lower, and leaves drop, allowing air and sunshine to dry the bolls as they open.”
Although sprouting and cotyledon growth may continue for a few days if heavy dews and fog persist with light showers, drizzle and warm temperatures, any sprouted cottonseed will die and dry as soon as some drier weather prevails, Willcutt says. “Usually by the time fields will support a picker, cotton lint will have dried enough to cause the sprouted radicals to wither into a fibrous strand similar to grass.”
Willcutt recommends growers delay harvest if succulent sprouted seed are still present in the bolls. If all other conditions are favorable for harvest, he suggests growers wait three or four days, watch weather fronts for periods of drier air, and consider applying a desiccant only if the short-term weather outlook is not favorable or re-growth is becoming an increasing problem.
“Harvesting cotton with sprouted seed will grind plant moisture and trash into the lint, and module packing will cause further degradation from micro-organism activity and staining,” he says. “If an attempt to gin the succulent radicals is made, gumming of saws is likely. Also, gin capacity will be reduced in proportion to the amount of sprouted seed present.”
On the other hand, delaying harvest until the affected cottonseeds dry completely will result in what Willcutt terms as only minor problems with harvesting, storing and ginning.
However, these “minor” problems may still result in grade discounts to growers. For example, any remaining seed hulls or fibrous radicals will likely add to light spot and spotted grade discounts caused by the extended periods of rainfall in August and September. In addition, seed weights per bale will probably be lower than normal and there may be some lint lost to the additional gin cleaning necessary to remove debris from the crop.
Operating two stages of saw-type lint cleaning may be beneficial where sprouted seed make up a large percentage of the total cottonseed, according to Willcutt. “This will do a better job of cleaning and will blend out some of the spots in marginally spotted or tinged fiber. However, if color grade is low, do not over-clean the lint because this will only serve to remove weight.”
He recommends growers and ginners take samples of lint ginned with different levels of cleaning to the USDA Classing Office for further advice.
“This was a most unfortunate and untimely period of continual rain. However, cotton growers shouldn't add to their overwhelming misery of low prices for a good yield gone bad in weight and color,” Willcutt says.