On a recent late-May morning in Clarksdale, Miss., Coahoma County Extension agent Ann Ruscoe made the observation that for the first time in a long while, “there wasn't a little nip in the air.”

Ruscoe may very well have been describing the beginning of the 2002 cotton growing season for many north Delta farmers. Most would emphatically add — it's about darn time.

Ruscoe provided this overview of the 2002 planting season in north Mississippi's Delta region. “We've had a lot of seedling disease, even where we had fungicides out. Cold winds and a south wind burned the stew out of the cotton, and we've been battling thrips because the cotton is not taking up any systemic. We've had to go overhead, sometimes with three treatments, to keep the thrips off of it. It's been a rough start.”

Ruscoe said from 10,000 to 15,000 acres either were replanted or needed to be replanted in the region. Cotton planted after April 30 in the four-county area served by Ruscoe “just sat there and didn't grow and it got to looking ragged.”

“May 20 we started looking at that cotton and much of it looked like it was going to die. But we kept anything that had a good root system and a terminal.”

A brief window of warm, dry weather from mid-May to the Memorial Day weekend allowed growers into fields to plant, replant, and in some cases, replant a second time, according to Ruscoe.

Those replant decisions weren't easy, according to Ruscoe. “If all this had happened during the first week of May, we would have replanted a lot of cotton. But when it's May 23, the decision is hard to make. You don't know if you're going to get a rain to get the replanted cotton up.”

As of late May, cotton around Clarksdale not damaged irreparably by the schizophrenic spring “is beginning to green up a little bit, where last week it was kind of grayish and brown,” Ruscoe said.

Ruscoe also investigated hail damage in the area, which in one case destroyed one of the few stands of cotton that had achieved some size. On May 28, the field was too wet to replant and the producer may go with soybeans. “It's 1,100-pound cotton land,” Ruscoe said.

“Terrible,” said Dublin, Miss., cotton producer Taylor Flowers, when asked to describe the 2002 planting season. “If you were lucky enough to plant some real early, you're probably better off. The later-planted cotton just never grew off, and the thrips and the cold weather have just about worn it out.”

Flowers farms about 300 acres of cotton and also helps out on the family operation, which produces another 5,500 acres of cotton.

The Flowerses started planting April 30 and finished around May 26. When planting conditions are closer to normal, “with three 12-row planters, it takes us eight or nine days to plant,” Flowers said.

The weather delays forced the Flowerses to plant in less than ideal conditions. “We've pushed through bottoms in muddy conditions,” Flowers said. “We've done things we wouldn't normally do.”

Flowers planted one field to cotton May 22, “but we got a hard rain right after we planted and had to rotary hoe it to get it up. It came out of the ground pretty fast after we busted the crust. It's as big as the early-planted cotton right now.”

While cotton is finally starting to green up a little, cotton fields planted in late April and early May are battling thrips. “The seed treatments or the in-furrow treatments are not working,” Flowers said. “The cotton is sitting there, and it's not growing, and it's not picking up the systemics. It's got to grow to pick it up.”

In addition, so much time has passed that systemics are degrading under early-planted cotton, meaning when cotton does get to growing, there might nothing to take up.

The bottom line is that Flowers has put out numerous over-the-top treatments for thrips. “We have some buckshot ground where the top end of the field where the water got off quicker is not as heavy with thrips. On the lower end, where it's been sitting in water all day with wet feet, the thrips are a lot worse.”

Growers now turn to Mother Nature to provide some good growing weather deep into fall. History does not provide any clues for Flowers.

“My granddaddy said he planted a crop at the end of May in 1953 after frost hit it. He didn't make any cotton that year. But in 1991, we made the best crop we ever had and we finished planting on May 23. So anything could happen. It depends on the weather.”

One thing is certain, however. There is a lot more risk built into the 2002 crop, noted Flowers. From now on, “we're going to have to baby the cotton along. We're going to have to make all the bolls count.”

“We're going to have to manage this crop at a higher level than we're used to because we are so late,” Ruscoe added. “And so much will depend on what kind of fall we have.”


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com.