The 2002 Mississippi cotton harvest hasn't been uneventful. High yields have led farmers to brave waterlogged soils and to use unusual harvesting methods.
Lamar Berryhill — who farms land in Coahoma, Tallahatchie and Sunflower counties in the Mississippi Delta — has about 700 acres of cotton. Berryhill says he chose to use spacers on his four-row picker.
“We have heavy land, and it's been wet all year. Normally, such land gets worked last, planted last and picked last. Well, as it's been wet straight through the growing season, the problems were even worse this year,” says Berryhill.
Hoping his heavy soils would dry up, Berryhill picked all the sandy and high land he could before getting to fields of caking mud. But eventually, the slippery muck had to be faced.
“We put the duals on my picker just like always. On the sandy ground, the duals with high flotation tires on the back work fine. But we soon found that wasn't going to work on the heavier soils. What happened was the gumbo was sticking to the duals — getting in between the tires — and slicking over. The picker just wouldn't go.”
Berryhill “fooled around” for several days trying to get his cotton out and just couldn't do it. A friend then told him that Bowen Flowers — a farming neighbor — had spread his picker duals out. Curious, Berryhill traveled a couple of miles and watched Flowers pick. The spreaders on Flowers six-row picker seemed to work pretty well.
“I measured my four-row and determined I needed a 24-inch spacer. I had the spacers made in Yazoo City (Miss.) at a machine shop (Crabtree Manufacturing Co.). After putting them on, we had no more problems.”
In the meantime, Flowers had 600 or 700 acres of gumbo land with cotton on it.
“Things got so stiff out in the fields that they had to get a tractor and push the picker through the cotton,” says Berryhill. “I'd never seen or heard of that. As soon as the picker turned around and headed back into the field, it got stuck. The tractor then got behind and started pushing. They put a push bar on the tractor and the picker, too, and off they went.”
Such measures probably wouldn't be employed if not for the high yields to be gained. “I'm telling you, the cotton is really good, so we have to get it. When the first tropical storm came through, we got 1 inch of rain. The next one dumped 1.5 inches. Shortly after that, a storm that came through put 7.5 inches of rain on my land. We usually get the cotton out of the fields by no later than the first week of November. That's totally finished — stalks cut, whatever. That's not happening this year.”
Before the first tropical storm, Berryhill had picked about 60 acres. That cotton was 2.4 bales per acre. He lost cotton after every rain. If not for that, “we could have had an unreal crop. As it is, I picked a lot of 2-bale cotton, some 1.75 bale cotton, and now it's down to 1.5 bales.”
Will McCarty, Mississippi Extension cotton specialist, says growers are using some of the same harvesting tricks used years ago. “It's just that we haven't had to use them for so long we've had to dust them off.”
Harvest conditions this year were probably the worst McCarty has seen since 1984. There are places in Mississippi that since Sept. 12 have gotten over 35 inches of rain.
“I was looking at some test plots around here with rain gauges in them. Since Sept. 12, if you take the inches of rain and divide it by the number of days, you're looking at an average of 0.3 inch of rain daily. There have only seen four- or five-day stretches when there hasn't been a rain. We've had to deal with two tropical storms, no drying-down time, continuous fronts sweeping across the state.”
With such conditions, many farmers “dualed up” their pickers, says McCarty. In really wet conditions, “farmers who ran para-plows last year found out that pickers like to slide off in the paratill ruts.”
A disadvantage of running a paratill and subsoiling down the row is that under really wet harvest conditions, pickers slide off into the ready-made trenches.
“The deal with tractors pushing pickers across fields is also a strategy we saw across the state. Those two things are about all growers can do.”
And McCarty, while happy with the yields coming in, can't shake the thoughts of what could have been the final tally.
“I really believe that if we'd had an open season — beautiful to average harvest conditions every day — Mississippi had a great chance of exceeding 1,000 pounds per acre. That would have been the first time ever for a state east of Arizona to accomplish that.
“The old record for Mississippi — 901 pounds — would have been blown out of the water. The Nov. 12 USDA crop report still had us at 821 pounds per acre. After all the harvest troubles we've had, that's still almost 100 pounds over the five-year average. That's pretty impressive.”