Ecept for scattered fields, Louisiana and Arkansas cotton is off the stalk. Overall, yields are positive and harvest weather has had glowing reviews.

“A lot of our producers are about halfway through ginning,” said Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. “It looks like we'll be close to a 1,000-pound average. We'll certainly take that because the crop was looking shaky a couple of months ago.”

Earlier this season, Robertson was very concerned. “Some cotton was in bad, bad shape. It was very dry until late June when wet weather finally came through. There was tremendous boll-shed in some fields.

“It was surprising how well the crop recovered. The fall has been fantastic for cotton. The weather allowed the plants to fill bolls.”

Prior to the hurricanes, Louisiana's average yield was projected to be 920 pounds. After the hurricanes — and Rita did more damage to cotton than Katrina — the state average on some 600,000 acres dropped to between 850 and 900 pounds.

“We still have a lot of cotton on the gin yards so we don't know exactly what we've got,” said Sandy Stewart, Louisiana Extension cotton specialist. “We'll take 850 to 900 pounds, though. That compares favorably with our five-year average. For the most part, producers are happy with harvest. It could easily have been much worse.

“We had to harvest cotton very fast in front of the hurricanes. That meant we left a bunch of stalks in the field — a concern for boll weevil eradication. Folks are now getting to those but the destruction window is slowly closing.”

This year's cotton has been an expensive crop in Louisiana. Besides higher diesel and fertilizer prices, insect issues popped up repeatedly. “Our annual battle with plant bugs continued, we had spider mites early and battled fall armyworms later,” Stewart said.

In Arkansas, one variety was derided early and praised late. “Some were really down on Stoneville 5599 — a Bollgard Roundup Ready,” Robertson said. “But at the end, most growers with 5599 were pleasantly surprised at what it yielded. To the utter disbelief of a number of central and northeast Arkansas growers, 5599 ended up being their best variety.”

Arkansas' 1,000-pound average also takes into account the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and, most especially, Hurricane Rita. After Rita, Robertson saw a number of fields in southeast Arkansas with 350 to 400 pounds of cotton on the ground.

“A consultant from that part of the state, Robert Wells, has said the worst storm damage he saw cost a farmer well over 500 pounds. Obviously, those storms pulled the state average down. I'm estimating we've lost 100 pounds across the board. That's substantial. Even in the northern part of the state, the cotton was hurt. In Mississippi County there were a lot of spots with 30 pounds on the ground.”

Verification fields — widely distributed across the state — averaged 97 pounds lost. “That's a solid reflection of what happened statewide.”

Currently, a few Arkansas producers are doing selective deep tillage. “They're looking close at fields that aren't yielding quite what they should. Hardpan is a contributing factor with some but producers are being very choosy about what they spend diesel on. Of course, fuel prices are coming down a little and that's a welcome development.”

Even so, producers are having a hard time penciling budgets out.

“Plans for cotton acreage in 2006 are unclear,” Stewart said. “Diesel and fertilizer prices will certainly be a factor. The big question for 2006: how many soybeans will be grown compared to cotton?”

Stewart's gut feeling is Louisiana cotton acres will hold steady or decrease only slightly. “I don't see a major exodus away from the crop. However, I know many hard planting decisions will have to be made by early spring.

“Don't forget, also playing a role in this will be a whole new set of cotton varieties. Roundup Ready Flex will be coming in for the first time. That will be very attractive to many cotton farmers.”

In visiting with “a bunch of cotton farmers,” many in Arkansas seem to be “holding their own,” Robertson said.

That isn't true for producers of every crop, however. “Knowing what input costs are, a whole bunch of growers — especially grain — are on shaky ground. It's hard to believe, with current prices, many won't be worse off next year.”

Lately, Robertson has been visiting with many rice producers. “They're looking to put something different on rice ground they can't hold a flood on. They're shopping beans, cotton — anything but rice.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com