Many cotton producers have been wondering whether the sun would ever again shine for more than a brief moment or two at a time, after a very wet fall/winter in 2002/03.

But fields are drying up, albeit slowly, soils are getting warmer and even though a wet spring could still cause trouble, cotton producers are anxious to get started. Here’s a state-by-state roundup of the outlook for Mid-South cotton production:

Mississippi

“We could be in better shape, but we could be in a lot worse shape, too,” says Mississippi Extension cotton specialist Will McCarty. “We were able to get a lot of fieldwork done in January in a lot of areas. February was extremely wet.

“Going into March, it’s beginning to dry out in some areas. A few farmers are starting to move out onto the sandier soils. If we could get a few more good drying days, bright sunshine and the wind blowing, we can get back in the fields.”

McCarty noted that as of mid-March, many northeast Mississippi fields were still extremely wet. “They still have a lot of ruts in the fields, but overall, we’re not in any kind of desperation mode. We still have adequate time to get everything ready.”

The specialist believes that Mississippi’s cotton acreage will be at or slightly higher than recent National Cotton Council projections of 1.198 million acres despite grower dissatisfaction with harvest delays and other problems associated with the 2002 crop. “Several ginners have told me that they will be ginning more acres this year.”

As cotton producers get ready for planting, McCarty encourages them to “not push anything. Common sense always has to apply. Don’t start planting too early. If it’s cold and wet, wait a while. Don’t set a calendar date when you have to go and start planting cotton.”

In addition, “I know seed costs and technology costs are driving a lot of farmers to really cut their seeding rates. But don’t get too carried away. It’s a lot cheaper to plant a couple of extra seed than it is to have to replant.”

McCarty also stresses that late applications of lime are better than no applications at all. “I get the question about this time of the year from farmers wondering if it’s too late to put lime out just before planting. The answer is, ‘if you need lime, you better put it out. And yes, you will get some benefit from it, even applied at a very late stage in the game.”

Arkansas

Arkansas cotton producers are ready to get into fields, but high fuel costs are giving them pause, according to Extension cotton specialist Bill Robertson.

“This is one year when growers sure don’t want to be wasting fuel. I know one grower who has about 2,500 acres of cotton this year. He has about 500 acres he has to smooth out the ruts in, but the rest he’s going with no-till.”

Robertson advises that growers looking to cut back on expenses “do some planning on the front end. There are some inputs we can cut back on and some we can’t. We can be more efficient and we have to maintain our flexibility.”

Robertson expects Arkansas cotton acreage to decline slightly from last year, “but I don’t think it’s going to be more than 5 percent. A lot of cotton acreage is going to corn and we’ll find out just how much in the next couple of weeks. We’ve already had a little corn planted, and if we miss a rain this week (mid-March), some growers will be through planting corn.”

Robertson stresses that growers do their homework choosing a cotton variety. “We have some new varieties coming on that are different maturity-wise than what we’ve had in the past. Triple Nickel (DP 555 BG/RR) is getting a lot of press, but there’s also a lot of interest in Stoneville ST 5599BR.”

Tennessee

“Growers are starting to get pretty antsy,” said Tennessee Extension cotton specialist Chism Craig. “I talked to a couple yesterday that say the burndown is going out the door.”

There will be more shaping up of rutted ground this spring because of the wet fall, noted Craig, “but most of that is soybean ground. You’ll see only one or two cotton fields that are rutted up.”

Like other specialists, Craig is concerned about growers cutting too much from their budgets in 2003. “Because of rising seed costs in cotton, producers are trying to get by with planting fewer and fewer seeds. On top of that, many are considering cutting back on a fungicide as well. When you’re on a bare bones budget, that’s not the place you want to cut.”

While cotton acreage is expected to rise in west Tennessee, Craig will be very surprised if cotton acreage is anywhere near recent NCC projections of 731,000 acres, a 28 percent increase over last year.

“I’m not sure we have that much land,” Craig said. “We may see an increase to over 600,000 acres. The NCC is counting on cotton land that was flooded last year coming back, lack of available options in corn and soybeans and a good price outlook for cotton. Most of the farmers I’ve talked to have said they will plant about the same or have picked up an extra 200 acres. I’ve have yet to hear any drastic changes.”

Missouri

University of Missouri Extension cotton specialist Bobby Phipps believes cotton acreage in the region will be at the same level as last year and maybe a little higher. “We had a heck of a crop last year.”

Phipps advises growers to think carefully about their budgets this season. “You can cut costs two ways. One is cutting cost per acre, which is great provided you don’t cut your yields. But the best way to cut costs is to get the yield up, spread that fixed cost over more pounds of cotton.”

In addition, growers should enter this season with good pH levels. “If it’s not right, your fertilizer and everything else is not going to perform properly. And a good consultant is essential. Good worm control in 2002 meant a lot. A good consultant earned his money many times over.”

Use a seed treatment or in-furrow insecticide, Phipps advises. “I have never in my life treated thrips that I didn’t think I was a week late. So protect cotton from the time it comes up.”

When choosing a cotton variety, Phipps advises growers to not forget that the region is due a early fall. “For the last two years, we’ve had about 460 DD-60s more than normal. We’re due one of those average years. So if you’re looking at a later-maturing variety, don’t bet the whole shop. We’re going to caught one time.”

Louisiana

Louisiana cotton producers “had a good window” for fieldwork in early January, according to Louisiana Extension cotton specialist Joel Faircloth. “Just this week, growers are starting to put in corn. I had thought we might see corn acreage lost to delayed planting go to cotton. But looks like we’re getting the corn in the ground.”

Cotton acreage “will stay about the same as last year,” according to Faircloth, who joined the LSU staff from North Carolina State University last summer. He noted that hurricanes the last couple of years “have shaken cotton producers up some.”

Faircloth advises Louisiana cotton producers, who should start putting seed in the ground in some areas in early April, “to plant in a timely fashion and to use proven varieties. Most growers don’t have the capital to take on extra risks.”

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com