If it hasn't slammed shut yet, the Delta cotton-planting window is dropping like a guillotine. While there is still time to make a decent crop, problems in the Delta states not named Mississippi — or at least the south Delta part of it — are legion.

“Even now, the second week of June, I'm getting calls about sickly-looking cotton,” says Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. “But for the most part, I think the crop is starting to look better. We're just now getting into some decent cotton-growing weather. We need warmer temperatures.”

Other specialists say the Mid-South cotton crop is as varied as they've ever seen — ranging from cotton that has just begun blooming to fields that have not had the seed emerge. Some growers are still planting or contemplating planting the rest of their 2003 crops.

That can be risky, says Sandy Stewart, cotton specialist with the LSU AgCenter. Stewart, who is based in Alexandria in central Louisiana, where conditions have been dry, was interviewed via cell phone June 11.

“Right now I'm driving to see a field that has yet to emerge,” he said. “That'll give you an indication how far behind we are. Anyone still contemplating planting or replanting cotton is taking a big, big chance. If the window hasn't slammed shut, we're a quarter inch from it.”

“We've got fields that were being replanted in cotton as late as last week — that's very late for us,” said Bobby Phipps, cotton specialist with the University of Missouri's Delta Center at Portageville. “I'm guessing we've lost around 20,000 acres.”

The unusual spring weather is creating situations that growers would not have thought much about five or six years ago.

Two nodes in 10 days

“When putting out sequential Roundup applications we need growing plants — two nodes or 10 days between applications,” said Robertson, who was interviewed while inspecting a field in southeast Arkansas. “Around here it's taking every bit of 10 days to get those two nodes.

“If we had the temperatures for adequate growth, we'd put two nodes on in six days. So the crop is growing very slowly even in the southern half of the state, where they weren't hit with all the rain other areas got a few weeks ago.”

Robertson says much of Arkansas' older cotton is probably at least “a good four nodes” off where it should be during a normal growing season.

“Conditions are bad, and we're growing plants slow, slow, slow. It's hard to make up so much ground. Cotton plants are resilient, but with conditions like these, late cotton is getting later. Normally, when you plant at the end of May, we're into good temperatures and the plants come out of the ground blowing and going. We're just not seeing the rates of growth we're accustomed to, although it looks to be doing better in the last few days.”

In a lot of fields Robertson has seen different growth stages. What worries him is all the replanting.

“That will cause big problems when we get into insecticide termination and defoliation timing. There are a tremendous number of cotton fields where we've got a bunch of spot planting. In talking with some Extension veterans, the feeling is there are more replants this year than we've had in a long time, if ever.”

In northeast Arkansas (Clay, Greene, Craighead, Mississippi and Crittenden counties) a lot of the acres — perhaps two-thirds — hadn't been planted when the rains started in May, says Robertson. Somewhere around 40 percent of that two-thirds ended up having to be replanted. The latter may approach 140,000 acres. “That's a big chunk of acreage planted late.”

Budworm explosion

Regarding pests, the big news in Arkansas is all the tobacco budworm moths being caught in traps in the northeast.

“They're catching ungodly numbers,” says Robertson. “Gus (Lorenz, Extension entomologist) also says he's getting calls on bollworms on four-leaf cotton. He's told them not to treat since the worms are working on the leaves and leaving the terminals.”

It isn't time to throw in the towel, but there's no more room to stumble, says Robertson. “In order to finish this race like we want to, lot of things have to click just right. If we get a couple of weeks of 100-degree temperatures, it's going to be ugly. But, especially on irrigated ground, if we can reduce stress and manage things well, a nice crop is still possible.”

In most all of northeast Louisiana, an area that has gotten adequate rainfall, things seem to be going relatively smoothly, says LSU's Stewart. But as you move further south and hit the Red River Valley and into the central part of the state, rainfall has been very spotty.

“In fields that have gotten some rain and where planting was timely, the cotton looks good. But right next door there might be a field that hasn't gotten rain in over two months. So in central Louisiana, we've got cotton that's knee-high and some that hasn't even germinated yet.”

Stewart says 20 percent of the state's cotton is located in central Louisiana. “Out of that, I'd say perhaps 5 to 10 percent is in big trouble.”

More problems are coming, says Stewart.

“We've got a bunch of fields that have cotton with vastly different maturity. Farmers are going to struggle with such fields all summer. You know, a portion of a field's cotton came up when it was planted into moist soils and then the rest came up five weeks later after a rain. Those fields — where you essentially have two cotton crops in the same close quarters — are going to be very difficult to manage.”

When to Pix?

One thing that's already come up is Pix applications. “Producers want to know if they should spot-spray Pix or make a blanket treatment even though there's some six-leaf cotton mixed in with cotton ready for Pix,” says Stewart. “We're saying that if growers can't spot-spray or run a wick applicator, then they'll have to go with what fits the maturity level on the majority of the field. If there's adequate moisture, they may want to go ahead and spray even with the smaller cotton. If it's dry, though, I'm advising producers hold off as long as possible so the younger cotton can catch up.”

Stewart says he saw his first flower of 2003 on June 10.

Pests have been relatively quiet although, Stewart says, some aphids are being treated. “We're not treating every situation with aphids. The concern is the beneficial fungus that takes out aphids won't show up for about three weeks yet. So any treatment is generally going out on late-planted fields so there won't be any more delay of the crop's maturity.”

Stewart says there actually may be a silver lining with all the different maturity levels. Because of the planting season Louisiana has had, “we've spread the maturity of the crop out. At the end of the year, it will spread the risk and harvest. Maybe we won't be as vulnerable to the late-season storms and boll-rot conditions we've seen the last two years.”

“I hate being a pessimist, but I'm not going to lie,” says Missouri's Phipps. “Frankly, the Bootheel crop isn't good and is way behind. It's easily the worst crop since I arrived here seven years ago.”

As in the rest of the Delta, much of the area's cotton was planted very late.

During the first three weeks of May, some areas of the Bootheel received 19 inches of rain. Hail fell on other fields; seedling diseases then came in and ravaged the crop some more. On top of everything, temperatures have been “real cold” the last couple of weeks.

Breaks few, far between

“There haven't been any breaks on any front except pests, I guess. And thrips are beginning to show up now as in-furrow applications lose steam.”

Is there still time to recover from all this or will yields be down regardless of what happens from now?

“I'm afraid it'll show up at harvest. I hope I'm wrong. We had a very ugly crop at the beginning of June last year and ended up with our second-best crop ever. But from the looks of this crop, I don't think we can pull out of this all the way. Hopefully we won't lose any growers as a result, but we probably will.”

It's strange, but some of the worst-hit areas this year are normally some of Missouri's best cotton. The fields around Hornersville in Dunklin County normally hold lovely cotton plants. Not this year, says Phipps.

“There's one particular field in Dunklin County that I always drive by and notice how beautiful it is. It's one of those where you're envious of the producer who gets to grow such a great crop — you know, two-bales yearly. But this year that field looks terrible. No way that field makes two bales this year — not even close.

“I'm not big in replanting and usually try and talk 90 percent of producers into holding off and letting the plants recover on their own. But this year, in three out of every four fields, I suggest they replant.”

USDA originally had Missouri pegged at 405,000 acres of cotton, says Phipps. “I think we'll be around 385,000 acres now.”

Chism Craig, Tennessee Extension cotton specialist, spent the last couple of days looking at cotton fields. He's worried about what he's seen.

“I've seen cotton with three squares that was planted in mid-April and cotton that's only now cracking the ground. That's the story of the state — two or three distinct stages of cotton growth. I'd guess the majority of our cotton is in the cotyledon to two true leaves. We should have 30 or 40 percent of the crop squaring by now. We're nowhere near that.”

Late May planting

Craig's guess is Tennessee producers planted at least 40 percent of the crop from May 20 to June 1.

“We're just way late. I've looked at fields planted in late April or early May that had plants at five true leaves. And then on the low end of the field, cotton is just coming up. So farmers are looking at cotton that's late for a Roundup application beside cotton that's just peeking out.”

Managing fields is going to be a huge challenge this summer, says Craig.

“There's been a shortage of sunny, warm days to get this cotton cranked up. And it doesn't look to be getting better in the short run. It looks like we're going to see more rain over the next week or so. Cotton just can't catch a break.”

Craig doesn't think Tennessee's replant acreage is as high as it was last year.

“I think that's surprising. But the biggest factor this year is that our first-planted acreage is so late.”

Craig expects Tennessee to have around 550,000 acres of cotton this year.

In Charles Ed Snipes' region of Mississippi, anything south of Highway 82 seems to be in pretty good shape.

“Rains have been reasonable and nothing has occurred of great concern. But as you get north of Highway 8 we've got problems brought on by the extended, wet spring followed by cool nights. Those 10 nights of 50-degree temperatures really kept the cotton from growing well. In other words, the further north you go, the wetter it is and the ‘behinder’ we are,” says Snipes, Extension cotton specialist for the Delta area of Mississippi.

“I know uneven maturity levels are a concern in other Delta states, but that isn't especially a problem around here,” he says. “That's a function of erratic emergence and we haven't had as many problems as they've had.”

Snipes' region also hasn't had any serious pest troubles.

“We're anticipating plant bugs simply because it's time for them to rear their heads. We haven't had nearly the thrips troubles we've had in the past.”

Generally, any cotton south of Highway 82 is well into squaring, says Snipes. As you head north, there's more of a mixed bag: cotton that's squaring to cotton that's a week old. There might even be some blooms in some places.

“As far as replanting, my involvement has been in helping producers decide on what fields need to be replanted,” says Snipes. “We don't see enough stand loss in most fields to warrant replanting. Repeated rains or hail and strong winds have just banged up most of the cotton.

“I'm still optimistic about cotton in Mississippi this year. I think we'll have about 1.2 million acres of cotton in the state. Barring an unforeseen disasters, I think our cotton is going to be fine.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com