Mid-South cotton producers wouldn't mind a repeat of last year's incredible cotton crop, when Mother Nature smiled, the top crop flourished and boll weevils and worms were hardly a problem. The biggest snag was fall rains that interrupted harvest, hurt quality and knocked some cotton to the ground.
Overall, yields were exceptional, in some states exceeding previous record yields by more than a hundred pounds per acre. Here's a closer look at last year's crop, and what might be in the mix for 2005.
“Most things went right,” said Bobby Phipps, Missouri Extension cotton specialist. “We broke our old record yield by 180 pounds.”
A good spring for planting translated into a good, healthy start for cotton, “then we never had a day over 100 degrees, and we never had a prolonged dry period. I thought that lower temperatures and cloudy weather in August might have hurt the crop, but apparently it didn't. September was absolutely fabulous. We made a crop in September.”
A consistent top crop and more bolls at the ends of fruiting branches, both helped along by boll weevil eradication, contributed to the record-breaking crop, according to Phipps. “Varieties are getting better, too.”
The big problem for Missouri cotton growers in 2004 was lygus bugs. “They never let up. They are the new champ, now that we've knocked off the weevils and worms.”
The early part of the harvest season yielded some of the best-quality cotton Phipps had seen in the state. “Some producers were talking about getting 11s. Nobody had ever seen 11s. On the downside, “the quality and yields went down after it started raining at the end of the season.”
Phipps expects southeast Missouri cotton acreage to increase slightly this year “because it's still the most profitable crop to grow. Corn is not too flashy right now and Asian soybean rust has soybean producers worried.”
Asian soybean rust was found on volunteer soybeans growing in a parking lot at a McDonald's restaurant in Portageville, Mo., noted Phipps, who suggested the disease now be called MacRust.
“We'll take another year like last year,” the specialist said. “If you didn't make money, it's time to get out of cotton production.”
“You couldn't have drawn up a better season early on,” noted Chism Craig, the state's Extension cotton specialist. “We planted our crop in a reasonable amount of time. We didn't have as much late-planted cotton as we've had in the past.
“We had mild temperatures — enough heat, but nothing excessive and not a lot of high nighttime temperatures. We had adequate rainfall, almost exactly when we needed it. And we started out with an almost perfect defoliation season.”
Rains at the end of harvest season resulted in some yield loss, “but I don't think it was a tremendous amount. Our quality did fall off. We were having a lot of 51s and 42s. We weren't able to let the sun fluff the cotton back out. We had to jump back in and pick it when we could.”
Craig expects a small increase in cotton acres for 2005. “We're coming off a huge crop in cotton. Cotton has the best price support right now. The price of soybeans and the cost of controlling Asian soybean rust makes soybeans a lot less attractive.”
The price of fertilizer for corn and the possibility of drought and aflatoxin are also factors for more cotton acres. In addition, infrastructure needed to process and move commodities “is geared to cotton. If you have to haul grain an hour to an elevator and gins come pick up modules on your farm, you're going to stick with cotton.”
An increase in technology fees for Roundup Ready cotton has rankled cotton producers, noted Craig. “But come this spring, they'll be 98 percent Roundup Ready. They can't go back to farming the old way.”
Early planting and a large top crop were the biggest factors for Mississippi's record-breaking yield of 1,034 pounds per acre in 2004, a 100-pound increase over 2003, noted Tom Barber, Extension cotton specialist for the state.
Even so, too much rain during May and June set the crop back. “By the end of June, everybody was poor-mouthing the crop, including me. We were looking at average yields or slightly higher. But with these new varieties and the technologies built into them, we were able to come back. Toward the end of the year, we had produced a really good top crop.”
Thirty-five percent of Mississippi acres were planted in DP 555 BG/RR in 2004 and 15 percent in ST 5599 BR. “Those varieties produced well for us toward the end of the season.”
Hurricane Ivan took 5 percent to 20 percent of the crop in a few east Mississippi counties and put a lot of cotton on the ground in the southern part of the state.
Harvest weather was the saving grace for many producers. “We were able to get 70 percent to 75 percent of our crop out without getting rain on it. That was good for us, especially on the quality side.”
Barber also cited moderate temperatures during boll fill, “which contributed to some of the yields and quality.”
Increasing prices for seed and technology, fertilizer costs and Asian soybean rust will influence the crop mix for 2005, according to Barber. “A lot of our cotton producers grew cotton for the first time last year, and I think they will probably produce cotton again in 2005.
“The cotton (acres) that went to beans last year will probably go back to cotton this year.” noted Barber.
“Mother Nature was hard on us and good to us,” said Bill Robertson, Extension cotton specialist for Arkansas. But in the end, an average yield across the state of 1,112 pounds broke the previous year's record yield of 914 pounds.
“We had timely rains through the summer. Not everybody in Arkansas would want to admit it, but the boll weevil eradication program contributed to the yields we had last year.”
September “was wonderful. We accumulated a lot of heat units and had good, sunny weather to mature a lot of bolls. In August, I was getting calls about the low temperatures. People were concerned that we weren't going to make a crop.
“But the cotton kept chugging along. We set a lot of fruit on the plant and with the good September, we matured the fruit. Color grades declined because of rains that fell on the last 60 percent of the harvest. But if you look at micronaire and staple, we had a good year for both.”
Heavy rains in June did cause some consternation for farmers. “Some farmers didn't get a tractor in the field for the month. We had some trouble getting herbicide programs out, and it hurt us on getting our plant bug and plant growth regulator sprays out.”
Harvest rains also stretched the harvest season, according to Robertson. “Some producers were still in the field until right before Christmas.”
Cotton acres will remain the same, if not increase slightly, for 2005, according to Robertson. “The people I've talked to have indicated they will plant less corn and soybeans.”
The crop in Louisiana “started out as bad as any crop in recent memory with all the rain,” said Extension cotton specialist Sandy Stewart. “We didn't have much set on the plant in July.”
The rains also exposed a weakness of the Roundup Ready weed control program “when you don't have pre-emerge herbicide in the program. We had a lot of woolly fields and a lot of early competition.”
Then things started going right. “From Aug. 1 through the end of September, we had beautiful conditions, adequate heat accumulation, just enough moisture, and a lot of sunny days. That turned the crop around. It's amazing how much was made at the top of the plant. We made one of our larger crops on record.”
Stewart is looking for a modest increase in cotton acres for 2005. Factors include the specter of Asian soybean rust in south Louisiana. In north Louisiana high fertilizer prices could pull acres away from corn.