Plant bugs and dry weather plagued much of the Mid-South cotton crop this season, but the crop still has the potential to be very good, based on crop conditions and observations from county agents and Extension specialists.

In its July 29 crop progress update, USDA reported that over 70 percent of the cotton crops in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi were in good to excellent condition, compared to 51 percent for Missouri and 60 percent for Tennessee. Across the rest of the Cotton Belt, 54 percent was rated in good condition or better.

According to Arkansas Extension cotton specialist Tom Barber, relatively cool temperatures through much of the season and an early start on irrigation have Arkansas cotton producers sitting on a very good crop, despite heavy plant bug infestations.

“I hate to be too much of an optimist, but retention is in the high 90s, which is almost unheard of. Plant bug populations have moved in and out in south Arkansas, but we’re finally about over the hump on them.”

The crop is starting to cut out and insect sprays are being terminated on many fields, according to Barber, “but I don’t know that cutting out this early is a bad thing because north of Marianna, the plant is really fruited up. A lot of people are trying to push it, to keep it from cutting out early. But I don’t know that we’re cutting out early. We have a lot of nodes with a lot of bolls.”

Temperatures during the first half of the season were almost perfect for raising cotton, according to Barber. Recently temperatures have climbed back up, “but before that we were having highs in the 85-88 degree range and lows around 60-65. That’s maximum optimization for a cotton plant.

“We’re fortunate to have that kind of weather, but I think we’re going to start seeing a little more shed in the upper part of the plant as our nighttime temperatures warm up a little.”

Another factor for this year’s good yield potential is that growers started irrigating early. “That’s what set this crop up so well. Growers weren’t afraid to irrigate early. That means a lot.”

Plant bug infestations have been the biggest bugaboo for growers this season, Barber notes. “Once it hit, it was constant, worse than we’ve seen in a while. We haven’t seen the populations up north that we’ve seen in the south. Some people have had to spray six or seven times for plant bugs down south.”

Angus Catchot, Mississippi Extension entomologist, reports that the Mississippi Hill crop “is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s holding a lot of fruit and we’ve had relatively few pest sprays on it, so it hasn’t been as expensive a crop. It seemed to hold up well during the drought. Then we started getting the rains and now it looks real good. We still have some areas in the northeast part of the state that need a rain.

“In the Delta, we have cotton that is as good as anybody has ever seen and we have some stuff that is in bad shape, particularly in areas where the plant bug pressure was and is intense. That includes Washington, Sunflower, Bolivar and parts of Coahoma counties. We still have some cotton in those areas in tough shape from plant bugs. Despite the sprays, we lost a lot of fruit. We’ve been losing fruit to cloudy weather too.”

Still, most of the cotton is definitely above average, according to Catchot. “Rain has been spotty and producers have not been able to rely on the forecast the last few days, so we’re irrigating. The majority of the crop is approaching cutout, and we have a lot that is right at NAWF-5 right now.”

Crops in west Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel have had a tougher time dealing with drought. “It’s hard to make an assessment since we’ve been so dry,” said Dunklin County, Mo., Extension agent Mike Milam. “A lot of the dryland cotton doesn’t look good and I’ve seen it wilted down during the middle of the day.”

On the other hand, Milam says, some producers believe at this stage, they have the best cotton crop they’ve ever had. “But a lot depends on what happens the rest of the year. A lot of farmers have a lot of money invested in this crop.

“I talked to a farmer last week who said this cotton is addicted to irrigation. If we go very long without it, the cotton is going to suffer. Of course, those roots are right there on the surface.”

Milam said the area has received a significant number of heat units so far compared to years past. “In 2003, we had 952 DD-60s on July 15, compared to 1,211 in 2004, 1,040 in 2005, and 1,048 in 2006. This year, we’re at 1,495 DD-60s. It takes about 2,000 to raise a crop, so we still have a long way to go. But we’re way ahead of the normal pace.”

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com