Cotton yields in the Mid-South have been pleasantly surprising as the 2012 harvest winds down, although there is some concern that yields have not been consistently high across the board. In fact, yields have been more than disappointing for some producers.

In October, USDA estimated average yields of over 1,000 pounds for Mississippi and Arkansas and bumped yields for Tennessee and Louisiana from last month by 77 pounds and 65 pounds, respectively. Southeast Missouri yields are within 24 pounds of last year’s effort.

Overall, it was another weird and wacky weather year, which pushed expectations all over the place as the season wore on. Somehow cotton once again survived a great deal of environmental stress and there are examples of some extremely good cotton in the Mid-South. Plant bugs took a few more days off than usual during the season, helping a little with costs.

Despite good yields, Mid-South cotton producers could shift to corn and soybeans in a big way in 2013.

Arkansas

While average yields are estimated at over 1,000 pounds an acre for Arkansas, Tom Barber, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist, is disappointed in the consistency of yield across the state. “The average has come up, but we still have some cotton where it just wasn’t there. I think a lot of it comes back to these varieties and how they perform. If you plant them in that good Delta ice cream dirt, the yields are there. You put it on ground that’s marginal, and we’re just get mixed results.

 “It’s good that we can pick 1,800 pounds in one field, but it’s frustrating when we pick 800 pounds in another. It’s not all about varieties, there are some other factors involved. But a lot of times, we’re seeing some big differences within the same variety under different environments.”

The result is that despite the high average yields, “There are a lot of farmers out there who are struggling. Their crop just did not produce this year. For those growers, that’s one reason why they’re going to be shifting to grain.”

Barber sees a big reduction in Arkansas cotton acres in 2013, to perhaps as low as 300,000 acres. Barber noted that cotton will likely remain on ground where producers are more certain of its likely performance.

Louisiana

Louisiana cotton harvest is about 95 percent complete, according to John Kruse, the state’s Extension cotton specialist. “For the past two years, we’ve suffered through some pretty severe drought situations during the cotton growing season. This year, we definitely had a different rainfall pattern. We had some timely rains that really helped carry the crop along. Coming into the tail end of the season, I felt like we were in really good shape and was very optimistic.”

Hurricane Isaac then proceeded to take out about 8 percent to 10 percent of the crop, according to Kruse. “The damage could have been a lot worse. It did knock some cotton on the ground, especially in the southern part of the state, around Pointe Coupee Parish. The storm came through in such tight bands, it was a matter of where you were as to how much cotton got knocked on the ground.”

After the hurricane, storms came through the state almost like clockwork, stringing cotton out and keeping producers out of fields. “But we’re still in better shape this year overall than we have been in past years.”

Kruse noted that plant bug pressure was not as severe in 2012, which helped with costs. “Growers are moving their fertility dollars around, and spending a little money on P and K, which is good to see. Expense wise it was probably a moderate year.”

At current exchange prices and with what growers are telling Kruse, cotton acreage in the state will be significantly reduced in 2013. “Everyone is pretty clear that something in the economics is going to have to change between now and next spring for cotton acres to stay the same or increase.

“A certain percentage of cotton producers are tied to a gin and want to continue to participate in that system. There are others who strongly believe that a cotton rotation with corn is a good thing and will stay with that rotation.”

Kruse said cotton “did very well in the northeast part of the state in East Carroll Parish around the Lake Providence area. We also did extremely well in the northwest part of the state, in Caddo Parish. The central and southern parts of the state got dinged a little bit harder by the storms, and so their yields were probably lower.”

Mississippi

Mississippi yields are looking better and better every day too, says Darrin Dodds, Extension cotton specialist for the state. “Even on some of our hill ground, which is typically 800 to 900 pounds, growers have picked close to 1,000 pounds. We’re picking some 1,600-pound cotton in the Delta. In general, I think we have a better cotton crop than we thought we did.”

In July and August, growers were starting to worry, Dodds noted. “We saw a lot of fruit shed going on. But for whatever reason, this crop hung in there, and we’re picking a pretty good crop. Of course, some are not doing so well, but overall I think we’re doing better than we had expected.”

Dodds says that Mississippi’s cotton harvest “has been a little bit slower this year, but one thing I will say, producers are following harvest with the stalk cutters, and there’s a tremendous amount of ground that’s already in shape for next year.”

While the cotton crop is looking like a profitable one, it doesn’t compare to the profit margins on grains. For that reason, Dodds thinks cotton acres could go down by as much as 40 percent next year. “Hopefully by the end of next year cotton prices will be better and that will pull some acres back in the cotton.”

Missouri Bootheel

About 75 percent of the Missouri Bootheel’s cotton crop had been harvested by early November, according to Mike Milam, agronomy specialist for Pemiscot and Dunklin counties. “I talked to a farmer Sunday (Oct. 28) who is going to be finished early this week. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last week or so.”

Milam says Bootheel yields “are all across the board. The irrigated cotton looks pretty good, but there are some dryland fields that have done well, too. I know of one farmer who had a non-irrigated field that harvested around 1,200 pounds, with the help of some timely rains.”

USDA is projected Missouri cotton yields at 945 pounds, which is unchanged from the previous month.

Milam says that October “has been a good harvest month for the most part, even though rains did shut harvest down from time to time. But it’s been so dry, that even after a rain, fields usually dry out quickly.”

Cotton producers in the Bootheel have a chance to be profitable, according to Milam, “but it's difficult at 75-cent cotton.”

Milam said Missouri’s cotton acreage could be cut in half in 2013. “You can’t blame producers. Wheat prices are up and soybean prices are up. If you’re not tied in with the gin, and have to plant cotton, there’s a good chance you’re going to grow something else next year.”

Tennessee

Tennessee yields have gotten better and better with each USDA report. According to Chris Main, Extension cotton specialist, Tennessee, “Once we got past Oct. 1, yields started picking up for everyone. A lot of that early cotton was a bale to a bale and a quarter. Now we’re seeing a lot of two-bale cotton.”

Boll weevil eradication and two-gene Bt technology are two factors contributing to better yields for Tennessee producers over the last decade, noted Main. “Everybody is focused on plant bugs at this point. As for this year, once we get past the middle of July, we started getting rains in most areas every 10 to 14 days. It just kept the crop going.”

The higher yields may entice some growers to stick with cotton, but as long as prices remain where they are, Main sees a reduction in acres in 2013 of around 40 percent.

This has been a profitable season for many west Tennessee cotton producers, with a caveat, according to Main. “The farmers who forward contracted last year and were able to get some of the 28 cent to 30 cent equities, they have a good chance to make some money. There’s a chance for revenue for cotton producers, but it’s nothing like what they’re getting on corn.”