“The early maturing cotton – the cotton that’s open – has been damaged significantly,” says Will McCarty, referring to the impact of nearly 15 inches of rain in the lower Delta since Aug. 1.

“As cotton is cracking open, we’re getting hard locking and boll rot due to high temperatures and humidity,” said the veteran Extension cotton specialist with Mississippi State University in Starkville.

In essence, McCarty says, conditions in cotton fields for the last 10 to 15 days have been very much like those simulated in a germinator. Temperatures are over 80 degrees and humidity in the 100 percent range.

Troubles building

As a result of these conditions, Mississippi is seeing the worst sprouting of cottonseed in bolls that McCarty can recall. “The sprouting of seed is worse this year than it was in 1984. That year, we had over 20 consecutive days of rainfall that lead to a disastrous harvest. 1984 is the year many point to as the ultimate bad harvest year. The rain came later that year in cooler conditions.”

But right now, things look just as bad if not worse, says McCarty. Currently, the damage to the cotton that’s open is worse than in 1984, he says.

And late maturing cotton is also in danger as boll rot is present across the state. However, at this point, McCarty says his concerns are tempered because the damage isn’t nearly to the degree that is seen in open cotton.

“Seed in open cotton is approaching worthlessness. It’s very difficult to gin this cotton and the seed value will likely be insufficient to meet ginning costs,” says McCarty.

Rainfall reversal

Louisiana growers are also feeling the negative effects of excessive rainfall in August and early September after dealing with drought conditions in July.

According to the National Weather Service, 2.53 inches of rain fell between Sept. 1 and Sept. 3 in northeastern Louisiana. The normal amount for that time period is 0.31 inches. All told, year-to-date rainfall data shows a total of 46.79 inches of rainfall in that area, which is almost one foot more than the 34.92 inches of rain that is normal in northeast Louisiana.

“We’ve received about seven inches of rain in a little over a week,” says John Barnett, Extension cotton specialist with the LSU AgCenter. “At least 20 percent of the state’s cotton fields are experiencing problems with seed germinating in the bolls.

“We’re also estimating 20 to 30 percent boll rot across the state. As you move further south into central Louisiana the incidence of boll rot increases to about 50 percent. The worst case of boll rot that I’ve seen is a field in Avoyelles Parish, which has about 80 percent boll rot. These bolls are lost and will never be harvested.”

Like their other Mid-South counterparts, Louisiana cotton producers were preparing to harvest what they thought would be lint yields above 700 pounds per acre. That was before the continual rainfall caused boll rot and hard lock to set in to the state’s cotton crop.

“What was once an above-average crop is now a below average crop,” Barnett says. "We thought this was going to be one of the best crops we've ever had. However, a lot of the cotton has since laid down and now everything that is on the ground is starting to rot and germinate in the burr.”

Arkansas hurting

Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist, says growers in his state are experiencing similar problems.

“Arkansas’ crop – especially in fields below the Arkansas River – has deteriorated terribly. I think we’re getting the same calls and seeing the same thing in our fields,” he said. “There’s no easy way to say this: the crop has gone downhill fast and it could get worse.”

Problems aren’t existent across the whole state, but Robertson says some farms in the lower part of the state received 8 inches of rain. Around Winchester, farms got 4 inches. Around Pine Bluff – where fields received just 2.5 inches -- the boll rot is “terrible.”

Robertson has some very early cotton in the southern part of the state. On Sept. 4, he wanted to start defoliation work. “No dice. The fields are still in standing water.”

There are areas of Mississippi that have taken the brunt of the weather, says McCarty.

“The worst of this is from Highway 82 south,” he noted. “From Highway 82 up to Highway 6 is pretty bad. North of Highway 6 didn’t get quite as much rain so the problems aren’t as severe. But I don’t want it to sound like they don’t have problems there too. From Cleveland to Natchez, the cotton looks terrible. The problems are also bad in the east part of the state.”

Seed deteriorating

Any seed being grown in Mississippi is in great jeopardy of deteriorating in the field, says McCarty. There is seed grown further west that can be salvaged, but any cotton being grown for seed in Mississippi will “definitely be scrutinized and much of it will be unacceptable. Some seed will likely be so deteriorated, it won’t be acceptable even for the oil mills.”

Incredibly, McCarty says he’s seeing cotyledonary leaves inside bolls. “It’s unbelievable what some of these bolls look like. It’s not just cotton. Any grain sorghum that hasn’t been harvested has sprouted in the heads and is ruined.”

“When we get to the point where seed is sprouting in the boll, that’s trouble. Gins hate it because it slips through the ribs on the saw. Seed value plummets. Nothing good can come from this,” says Robertson.

Defoliation strategy?

Giving advice on defoliants in a situation like this is very difficult, says Robertson.

“It’s durned if you do and durned if you don’t. In many cases it’s going to be a judgment call. I visited with a farmer this morning whose node above cracked boll is running around 6. We want that number around 4. But his canopy is dense and he feels as though he needs to do something to go ahead and knock it open. I’m just not sure if that’s the wrong thing or the right thing.”

If you defoliate cotton early, micronaire decreases. If a farmer has a variety that tends towards a high micronaire, he has a little more of a cushion to deal with.

“Mike is a component of yield, though. So do you get it immature in the basket or leave it to rot and fall on the ground? Some of the cotton I’m looking at is running node above cracked boll at 10 or 11. No way can I put a rig in to defoliate that. We’re just going to have to hope for drier weather,” says Robertson.

Mississippi farmers are having a tough time getting defoliants out between rain showers, says McCarty. “Boll rot is as bad this year as I’ve seen in a long, long time. Farmers still need to identify the young bolls needing to mature and let them open before defoliating.

What we really need is a big Canadian weather system to push in and drop humidity down and get air circulating. We need a breeze. We can’t control that, though.

“What we can control is getting leaves off the crop as soon as possible. When the bolls a farmer needs to mature are finished, get the defoliants out. Don’t wait.”

The fall-out

McCarty and Robertson say it appears similar problems might extend right across the southern half of the cotton belt.

“This could spell disaster for several states. Mississippi alone is looking at some 1 million acres of cotton significantly affected. You add in a couple of other states and that’s frightening,” says McCarty.

Many Arkansas farmers are busy getting rice out and looking at getting early cotton defoliated “so there’s a place to put the pickers when the rice harvest is finished. Many farmers I’ve talked to don’t even want to walk in their cotton fields. They know the rot is there and they don’t want to see it. There’s not a lot they can do,” says Robertson.

The end of the season is “tearing Mississippi’s cotton crop up,” says McCarty. ”The farmers are going to get hammered. It’s shaping up to look like an absolute disaster for our early cotton. USDA figures won’t come out until the middle of this month. I’m not sure how much this will be reflected in their numbers. I can tell you, though, that we’re looking at a significant yield and quality reductions.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com