The big wart on this year's surprisingly large Mid-South cotton crop was — to no-one's surprise — extremely high costs of production. Fertilizer and fuel costs soared during a dry year, making irrigation and harvesting that much more expensive. While the big crop will help defray costs for many, 2006 will likely see fewer cotton producers, but more cotton acres, according to cotton specialists. Here's more on each state:

Arkansas

According to Arkansas Extension cotton specialist Bill Robertson, the state's cotton producers produced a second 1,000-pound plus crop in 2005. The crop was 99 pounds off last year's record crop, and the second best crop ever, “but if you look at the amount of cotton on the ground after the hurricane, which we figured at 97 pounds (per acre), we could be where we were last year.”

The yields were even more surprising considering some varieties “seem to take it on the chin in June and July, but later producers were wondering where all the cotton came from.”

As in every other state in the Mid-South, high production costs definitely took the shine off the huge crop, according to Robertson. “We had producers go back to their bankers more than once to ask for more money. A lot of the producers I'm talking to feel like they're going to do all right this year. But I've talked to a lot of people who say they need to cut $50 to $60 out of their budgets to break even.

“We've had record and near-record crops the last three years, but we can't count on making a yield like that every year. Cotton producers are going to have to figure out how to stay in business if they only produce 800 pounds or 900 pounds. It's scary, but those are some things we need to be thinking about.”

Despite the lack of profits, cotton acres could be up in Arkansas next year, according to Robertson.

Mississippi

According to Mississippi Extension cotton specialist Tom Barber, the season was full of unexpected costs. “We had spider mite sprays and fuel costs that we don't usually allocate for. A lot of farmers were just happy to break even.”

USDA lowered its estimated average yield for this year's Mississippi crop to 854 pounds, but that is still above the five-year average yield. “If we can get out of the field with those yields, we'll be pleased.”

Barber says yields could have been significantly higher had it not been for windy weather from Hurricane Rita, which blew significant amounts of cotton on the ground. “We had a little better crop than everybody thought to begin with, just from hearing farmers talking.”

Many farmers have taken advantage of the open fall to get their fieldwork done. “We sure have everything ready to go next year. We ought to be able to get in and get started next spring.”

The quality of the crop was about average, according to Barber, who believes cotton acreage will not slip below 1.1 million acres in 2006. “I've had some rice producers talk to me about putting in cotton. The one thing everybody has been talking about is the price of fertilizer.”

Missouri

According to Mike Milam, agronomy specialist at the University of Missouri Extension Service, good weather played an important role in a second consecutive year of excellent average yields in southeast Missouri.

Boll weevil eradication deserves some credit for the USDA-estimated 960 pound average yield crop. “Growers have not had an economic infestation of boll weevils since 2001. In fact, our yields have been very, very good since 2001.”

A dry harvest season helped growers get the crop out of the field quickly and probably helped preserve quality. But Milam was one of many observers to note the high cost of production. “I thought that with the lack of insect damage we had early on that we would have lower costs. But fuel costs and irrigation costs made it more expensive.”

Milam says some corn acreage could shift to cotton in 2006, due to high fertilizer costs. “It's going to be interesting to see what happens. A lot will depend on the provision of the farm bill, whatever crop they can make the most money on.”

Louisiana

“When it was all said and done, we came out with a pretty decent crop,” said Louisiana Extension cotton specialist Sandy Stewart. “The thing is, it could have been bigger had we not had the hurricanes.

“Profitability is on everyone's minds,” Stewart added. “Producers know they had a good year from a yield perspective, but they have to be even more efficient. Fertilizer costs aren't going down. Diesel costs aren't going down.”

Stewart says there are three factors for Louisiana's high yields. “We had an ideal harvest season once again. It was dry before and after the hurricane. We got some rainfall when we needed it, and we didn't go through prolonged dry periods while we were blooming.

“The varieties we're growing now have the potential to take advantage of a longer growing season, and boll weevil eradication helps too.

“Every year, we relearn how resilient cotton is,” Stewart said. “We didn't have an ideal planting season, and we had some unusual, sporadic insect pests during the year. We went through a period of abnormal square shed. We had two hurricanes and still came out with one of the biggest crops on record for the state.”

Tennessee

The Tennessee cotton crop will likely average between 740 pounds and 760 pounds, about 100 pounds less than USDA's current estimate, according to Extension cotton specialist Chism Craig. “Last year, our crop was good everywhere and we had a real good state average. This year, we had some areas that were as good as or better than last year. But we have some areas that were really dry and picking considerably worse than last year.”

West Tennessee farmers aren't bullish about cotton at this juncture, according to Craig. “We had an expensive year from the start. Our fertility costs were up. We always spend a lot of money on seed. We didn't have a tremendously expensive year for insects, but we spend a lot of money harvesting the crop with the higher fuel costs. That's going to bite into profits.

“We're making average yields, but average yields and expensive crops don't leave a lot. I don't think anybody is jumping up and down talking about how much money they've made.”

As for next year, “fertility costs are going to go up again and fuel costs aren't going to go down to the levels of two years ago. And we have heard lately that chemical prices are going up 3 percent to 5 percent. You factor that in with the cost of all these new technologies coming on — we're going to be in a world of hurt.”

A bright spot is that west Tennessee cotton producers had excellent yield despite a very dry, hot year. “With the varieties that we had 10 years ago, we would have had a bale to a little over a bale this season. We were able to weather those conditions and still make an above average crop in the state.”

The good harvest season also contributed to a higher percentage of good color grades, according to Craig. “To date, in Tennessee, 61 percent of our bales have averaged at least a 31 and 5 percent of the bales at least a 21. But our leaf grades have been higher, although I'm not exactly sure why. We are also seeing a lot more short staple cotton.”


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com