Many cotton producers in southeast Arkansas traditionally wait on the calendar to start planting. But thanks to unseasonably warm early April weather, a few have already parked their planters for the season and are waiting to spray a first flush of weeds.

“This has been a year of paradox beyond compare,” said Andrew Wargo, farm manager for Baxter Land Co., in southeast Arkansas. “(Cotton producers) Steve Stevens and Jamie Dunnahoe both started planting on April 9 and finished, with the exception of minute acreage, last Monday, April 19.

“Ninety percent of it is up or coming up. We need an inch and a half shower to cover up a few problem spots, but we’ve never seen cotton, soybeans and rice go in like this. This is a week to 10 days earlier than we’ve ever planted. We’ve had unseasonably warm weather, May-like weather in April. Now, it could turn cold again in early May.”

Stevens, who planted 1,300 acres to cotton, said temperature and soil moisture levels were at optimum levels for planting cotton in early April, and he decided to pull the trigger. He burned down with Ignite to take care of glyphosate-resistant ryegrass and marestail. As of April 23, his cotton was in good shape and in the cotyledon stage or beyond.

Wargo says other producers in the area “farm strictly by the calendar and don’t pay a lot of attention to what the weather has done. We have a couple of growers who make good cotton who have opted not to start until after this front comes through this weekend (April 24-25).”

“I’ve never seen this much cotton up in Arkansas by mid-April,” said Arkansas Extension cotton specialist Tom Barber. “This moisture coming this weekend is going to hit that cotton just right. We could see another cool snap. But I walked some cotton yesterday that had been up for five days. For the second week of April, that’s pretty much unheard of.”

Barber says optimism over rising cotton prices is growing. “We’re seeing some new cotton pickers coming into Arkansas, which means there is a long-term commitment to cotton. Our estimated acreage is 520,000 acres, but looking at Lee, Phillips and Mississippi counties, they’re increasing acreage, and just that alone would put us over 600,000 acres.”

According to Mississippi Extension cotton specialist Darrin Dodds, cotton fields were quickly drying out prior to the rainy front that worked through the Mid-South on April 24-25. “Farmers who were planting were taking their beds down pretty far to get to the moisture. But we still have three weeks of prime window to go. We’re not anywhere near being late. But I figure by next week (the last week in April) we’ll be in high gear, depending on how much rain we get.”

The effect of excessive rainfall or hurricanes — for two years in a row for some producers — is still fresh on the minds of many Mississippi cotton producers, Dodds said. “Farmers in the south part of the state are still fairly gun shy of cotton, and acreage may be level to down there. The farmers up north didn’t get the hurricanes the year before, and they may go up a little more on acreage.”

In Louisiana, producers are planting cotton to keep a longtime tradition going, or simply because they don’t have another choice, says Patrick Colyer, LSU AgCenter Northwest Region director. “They have pickers and boll buggies, and they may not necessarily have the equipment for other crops. They’re sort of married to it.”

Expected area is expected to tumble to 200,000 acres in the state this season due to high corn and soybean prices. For that to change, Colyer says, “there would have to be a lot of changes in the economics for cotton. A lot of our producers see cotton as a costly crop to put in the ground. I do think cotton will rebound some as corn and soybean prices come down.”

Mike Milam, cotton agronomy specialist for Dunklin and Pemiscot counties in the Missouri Bootheel, says most of the cotton planting that had taken place by late April was in Stoddard County. “As far as field preparation is concerned, we’re ahead of where we normally are. I’ve seen a lot of cotton fields with a burndown on them. All they need to do is drop a planter in there.”

Tennessee Extension cotton specialist Chris Main noted, “A lot of producers have tuned up their planters — put a little seed in it and planted 25 acres to 50 acres to make sure everything is okay. There are a couple of farmers who have substantial acres in the ground right now. They should be okay. Starting Tuesday or Wednesday of next week (April 27-28) we’ll be wide open into cotton planting.”

Main says some areas of the state are increasing cotton acreage substantially. “We’re looking at a solid 15 percent increase in the state, maybe close to 400,000 acres. A few consultants I’ve talked to say they’re back up to as many cotton acres as they had in 2006.”

According to USDA’s March 31 Prospective Plantings Report, cotton acreage is expected to rise from 305,000 acres to 340,000 acres for Mississippi, from 300,000 acres to 380,000 acres for Tennessee and from 272,000 acres to 290,000 acres for Missouri. Acreage is expected to remain the same as last year, 520,000 acres, for Arkansas, while declining from 230,000 acres to 200,000 acres in Louisiana.

Cotton specialists say growers are watching fields closely for signs of resistant weeds, but they vary on how they plan to handle any problems. “If they know they’re going to have it, they’re the ones thinking about putting a residual down with their burndown or behind the planter. And I’m hearing more about producers going to LibertyLink cotton,” Dodds said.

“I hate to say it, but from my experience, it takes them getting it, fighting it and losing the fight before they’re willing to change.”

“You would think that if there were any group of cotton growers in the country who would understand resistance it would be west Tennessee growers because of the horseweed issues in 2001 and 2002,” Main added. “But it’s just like with the horseweed. Until you have it, or your neighbor has it, you kind of fly by the seat of your pants. But the farmers who have had it, or whose neighbors have had problems, are dead serious about it.”

According to USDA’s latest crop progress report, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana were all ahead of the five-year average for planting, with 20 percent, 28 percent and 32 percent planted as of April 25, respectively. Ten percent of Missouri’s cotton crop is in the ground, while 4 percent of Tennessee’s cotton has been planted.

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com