Mid-South cotton yields have been disappointing for some and surprising for others so far this harvest season.
On one hand, Louisiana producers are expected to harvest a record-average yield of 990 pounds per acre, up from 946 pounds last year, while Arkansas producers expect to harvest over 1,000 pounds per acre for the second year in a row.
But in Tennessee, hot, dry weather and lack of irrigation has knocked almost 200 pounds off last year's average yield of 945 pound per acre. USDA projected yields are down to 756 pounds per acre, and the average is expected to decline further.
The cotton crop is even worse in some neighboring states in the Southeast where the drought was extremely harsh. In Alabama, average yield is projected at 492 pounds per acre, down from 579 pounds in 2006. In South Carolina, yield is projected at 378 pounds, down from 697 pounds in 2006.
Meanwhile, yields for corn, the crop that replaced a significant percentage of cotton acres in the Mid-South this season thanks to high prices from the ethanol boom, have been impressive. In Louisiana, corn yields are now projected at 170 bushels per acre, compared to 140 bushels in 2006, while Arkansas corn yields, at 160 bushels, are a 14-bushel improvement over last year. However, drought hurt the west Tennessee corn crop where average yields are off almost 20 bushels from last year.
Somerville, Tenn., cotton producer Bob Walker was about 50 percent harvested in mid-October, and could only shake his head at the lackluster results so far. “It's been really bad. I don't think people realize how bad it's going to be this time.”
Lack of rain was the primary culprit in the largely dryland area of west Tennessee, according to Walker. “We had some places that had less than 3 inches of rain prior to cutout.”
Tennessee Extension cotton specialist Chris Main said while the dry weather was definitely not good for west Tennessee crops, the killer was three straight weeks of temperatures over 100 degrees. “We had run out of soil moisture going into that stretch. If a field happened to catch a thunderstorm or two in July, it fared better. But the western part of Madison County and the eastern part of Haywood, there are a lot of fields that didn't catch a rain all summer. That's picking about 200 pounds of cotton.”
Main said cotton yields are likely to fall substantially below USDA's October estimate of 756 pounds, probably to within a range of 600 to 700 pounds.
Cotton acres for 2008 will likely not decline much from present levels, according to Main, although many producers are going to replace corn and early soybean ground with double-crop wheat and soybeans.
The Mississippi cotton crop also suffered from too much rain early and not enough later on, however, yields are projected by USDA at 953 pounds per acre, 124 pounds higher than 2006.
Gunnison, Miss., cotton producer Kenneth Hood cut back about 12 percent on his cotton acres this season, while increasing his corn plantings. He was rewarded with excellent corn yields of over 200 bushels per acre. Soybean yields of around 50 bushels an acre were very encouraging.
However, Hood's cotton yields have been disappointing primarily due to the beating the crop took from Mother Nature. “The year started out fairly cool in the spring. We got planted, then it turned off dry in May and June. The Good Lord made the crops for us, particularly for corn and soybeans, in July. Then it turned off dry again in August.
“We had a lot more insect pressure from plant bugs than we've ever had in cotton. And three weeks of cloudy weather in July took its toll on these cotton varieties. Even where we have a big boll load, the size of our bolls are not as big as they should be, nor are we getting bolls that are opening up big and fluffy.”
Tunica, Miss., cotton producer Justin Cariker says cotton yields have been surprising. “There's no reason for it to be as good as it is, so I'm not complaining. We had probably the wettest July we've had in many years. Then we went though all this heat in late August and I was really worried about it. We went out and picked some 2.5-bale cotton. That's what we averaged on the first 1,800 acres we picked.
“We might be looking at a high micronaire, but grades have been good and staple has been extremely long. Everybody has been getting out of the cotton business, but this makes me want to stay in a little bit longer.
“Even on dryland, I feel like I can make a cotton crop,” Cariker explained. “It may not be a good cotton crop, but I've seen dryland beans yield so bad I didn't even want to cut them. Beans can promise me more and turn out less than any other crop.”
Cariker's experiment with corn worked out well this season, too. He dried down about 166 bushels per acre of corn on a little over 600 acres. “We had about 10 percent that was dryland and the rest was irrigated. Next year, we're going to go back with some corn in the mix.”