Several weeks of frequent thunderstorms have left growers with wet fields and in a quandary over what to do about the 2003 cotton crop, according to University of Arkansas Extension specialists.

“There are some areas that got a whole lot of rain – and when I say ‘a whole lot’ I mean fields that are completely under water,” says Bill Robertson. ”Then there are areas that only recently got much-needed moisture. For the most part, though, the state is buried under water.”

Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist, says it’s safe to say that the northeast part of the state has been the hardest hit with wet weather.

“From what I’m hearing, Crittenden County, Mississippi County, Poinsett County (where a falling tree hit the county Extension office) and a couple others are in bad shape. Trees are down all over the place, ditches are flooded – it’s just a major mess.”

After the latest major weather system on Saturday night (May 17), “you could drive around areas of northeast Arkansas that looked like one big lake,” says Robertson.

“I talked to a farmer around Manila (in northeast Arkansas’ Mississippi County) just today. He said a lot of his cotton is up and while the ground is very wet, there isn’t a lot of standing water. Seedling disease has thinned his stand some but he’s pretty sure the emerged cotton will be okay provided no new storm systems hit.

The too wet in the North, too dry in the South is being mirrored in neighboring Mississippi, according to Extension specialists there.

"We jumped out to a fast start in the beginning," says Will McCarty, Mississippi Extension cotton specialist. "About 10 days ago, we were ahead of average on planting, especially in the central Delta. As of May 15, the state's cotton crop was 70percent to 75 percent planted."

The North Delta, he adds, has been extremely wet this spring. "Northeast Mississippi has been very wet with almost no planting yet,” he said. “But in the South Delta, we actually have some areas that need rain, which in some cases is also delaying planting. We'll lose some cotton, especially south of Vicksburg where there's no levee protection.”

McCarty predicts some Mississippi growers will be replanting after "optimum" planting dates. In an ideal world, the state's entire cotton crop would be planted by mid-May, but all is not lost yet, he says. "It's a pretty mixed bag and the clock is ticking. Time is not in our favor right now, and more rain is in the forecast."

Robertson says he’s most worried about the part of the Arkansas crop that was planted just prior to the latest rains. Arkansas growers are also battling seedling disease problems, but there is there’s little producers can do at this point, he says.

“The conditions right now are almost ideal for seedling disease. A few farmers I’ve talked to say their stands are thinning out. But I’m still not hearing anyone say they’ve lost a field to seedling disease.”

One concern is the state is going to be planted to “well over” 80 percent Roundup Ready cotton. Producers are counting on having two shots of Roundup over the top.

“But there are some fields I have to push the weeds back to see cotton plants. Farmers are struggling to get Roundup out.”

And when they do get Roundup or other herbicides out, producers often return to find a crop that looks worse for the wear. While the spotting of plants is probably cosmetic, producers unprepared for the sight are calling Extension personnel with numerous queries.

“Cliff Coker (Arkansas Extension plant pathologist) and I were just talking about what all these stresses we’re putting on our cotton crop is really doing,” says Ken Smith, Arkansas Extension weed scientist in Monticello. “Today, Cliff said he saw fields around McGehee like I saw in Pine Bluff – I think this cotton splotching is being seen everywhere."

“When cotton is stressed and we come in and add another stress to it – and herbicides are a stress – the crop can’t help but be affected,” says Smith.

The crop has to metabolize herbicides and that takes energy to accomplish – energy the plants simply don’t have right now. As a result, Smith and colleagues are seeing a lot of sick cotton.

“And when this water finally recedes, we’re going to see even more sick cotton. I think the reason is that herbicides are just more active under these conditions: cloudy, wet weather and the leaves don’t have a good cuticle or wax layer. I doubt we’ll ever see a time when herbicides will work as well as they are right now – whether on targeted weeds or otherwise.”

McCarty says cotton is an indeterminate perennial, and growers aren't close to giving up on the state's crop. "In 1991, over 50 percent of the state's crop was planted after June 1, and we harvested what at the time was a record-high yield per acre. I'd prefer to see the cotton crop planted relatively early. But when push comes to shove, it's not as risky as it used to be to plant later in the season."

That, says McCarty, is partly due to the advent of Bt cotton and the success of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program. Bt cotton helps to control late season pests, and both developments are easing many late-season production problems. "We can, however, still have weather problems," he says. "This is pretty quickly developing into a push-come-to-shove year. We just can't seem to get a break. But if we have to, we can plant cotton up until the first few days of June and still have a cotton crop."

Ideally, all Delta cotton should be in the ground by May 25, says Charles Ed Snipes, Extension cotton specialist at the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Miss.

"We're pretty much OK until May 25, but we get kind of nervous after that date. That's not to say we haven't made some great crops after that date, though," says Snipes.

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com; dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com