Arkansas' cotton crop lacks uniformity and consistency. “There may be a field of really good cotton and right down the road there's a field that's obviously had to deal with a lot of stress,” says Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. “You can drive down the road and go from happy to sad in half a mile.”
On the flip side, stay south of Highway 82 in Mississippi and the cotton that pickers are currently running through looks great.
“We're not seeing anything unusual,” says Will McCarty, Mississippi Extension cotton specialist. “We've got a good many pickers running right now on some earlier cotton that's been defoliated. Within the last couple of weeks, we've gotten a good percentage of that cotton defoliated. The plants are carrying some heavy boll loads and are cutting out well. Cotton is opening fairly fast in the low humidity and bright sunny days we're experiencing. Let's hope they continue — we need a lot of cooperation from the weather.”
While concerned at the crop's appearance, Robertson says prospects for a decent crop are still “pretty good, but we've got to have a little more growing weather. If we can have a September like last year, I'll feel good about the crop. But if we don't have a really good September, we'll be cut short and yields will reflect that. We need more time.”
USDA estimates Arkansas' collective yield will be around 787 pounds. The state's 10-year average is about 750 pounds.
“I don't know of anyone with a picker in the field yet, but there may be a few. If we hadn't had the wet weather this season, cotton would already be in modules — maybe already bagged and tied,” says Robertson.
“Last week, I saw a lot of fields in southeast Arkansas that were turning very white, dropping leaves and spreading the bolls out. Some fields near Marianna that were planted around April 12 are ready for a picker.”
Still, overall the state is a “little time away from serious defoliation. For the (second week of September), cotton hasn't changed much in the field. With the cool, wet weather, the crop just stagnated. I have a feeling we'll get into serious defoliation (the last two weeks of the month).”
Some of the initial yields being reported in Mississippi are good, says McCarty. Unless something drastic happens with the weather, “we should have a good chance of exceeding our five-year average of 750 pounds. We may even make the USDA estimate of 807 pounds.”
Last year, Mississippi's crop averaged 808 pounds.
To reach the USDA estimate, McCarty says, the state will have to count heavily on the crop south of Highway 82.
“There's not a lot of picking going on in the northeast part of the state, where some 10 percent (about 100,000 acres) of our crop is. That 10 percent is extremely late. It'll be quite a while before that cotton is ready to harvest. Actually, it'll be quite a while before it's even ready to defoliate.”
And, says the specialist, the late cotton is now facing the potential of dropping temperatures and shortening days that could reduce yield.
“Cotton all over the state is facing the same conditions and is responding,” says McCarty. “Typically late-season conditions drive the crop into senescence — short days will turn it into an old man really quick.”
The big thing Robertson has noticed late in the season is residual nitrogen loss. All the early-season rains seems to have “bled out all the residual nitrates that carry over and are available to the plants late in the season. I think we lost every bit of that. The plants, in trying to meet bolls' demands, are up against it in trying to find nitrogen.”
Because of that, though, Robertson says defoliation products should work very well. He's yet to talk to anyone complaining about a defoliant not performing.
“On the late cotton, fall armyworms are tearing us up,” says Robertson. “I visited with some consultants last week and to a man they told me fall armyworms were causing problems — especially in northeast Arkansas. Nearly all the crop up there was planted in late May.”
Other areas are suffering from earlier wet conditions. In June, south of Pine Bluff and north of Star City — “say around Noble Lake, Moscow and Grady” — some cotton got one last “huge” rain that many other fields didn't. “I think that hurt that area's cotton badly. Before that rain, they weren't any worse off than anywhere else. But that last rain really punched them hard, and they've been behind the 8 ball ever since.”
Robertson says the best case scenario from here is the state sees no low-pressure systems in September that knock temperatures below 60 degrees. If that happens, “we could add a good 30 pounds to our yield average.”
Worse case scenario is “we get a cold front coming through early next week, temperatures drop to 48 degrees along with rain. If things stay that way for a day or two, we'll be lucky to hit 750 pounds.”
Mississippi needs temperatures to remain where they are or even warm up a bit, says McCarty. “We need that for at least the rest of this month, if not into October. But there's not a thing we can do about the shortening of the days. On this late cotton, we need a lot of high-quality sunlight. And, really, anything that helps the late cotton will help the already-mature cotton. One thing we don't need is more rain — on either the mature or late crops.”
Regarding defoliants, something McCarty has “learned over the years is that cloudy weather is more frightening than cold weather. Cool temperatures will slow down the physiology of a cotton plant. But there's a difference between cool and cold. Right now, we've just got mild temperatures.
“Once we get into nighttime temperatures in the 50s, it's over. If you've got immature cotton and the bolls face temps in the mid-50s or lower, it doesn't matter if it warms back up or not. Those bolls have suffered chilling injury and will never reach their potential. And if those plants are seed cotton, there's a great chance the seed will be hurt.”
It doesn't have to freeze to have troubles, says McCarty.
“If we start getting night temperatures in the mid to low 50s, this late cotton is finished regardless and our yield estimates will drop. Barring that, though, we should be fine.”