Cotton in the upper Southeast will be picked earlier than in any year in the past quarter century. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen.
Cotton is not alone. Corn that survived record heat and sporadic severe drought is early. Soybeans, typically combined from September to and November, are equally early. Peanuts may be the exception.
Cotton specialists say the early crop isn’t going to be good news for growers, but may not be a bad thing in all cases. Some crop mixes will benefit from the early harvest and some will see the optimum window of harvest closed somewhat.
In general, they contend the early crops will mean average or below average yields and quality in most cases.
Bill Peele, a veteran crop consultant in Washington, N.C. says this is the earliest he has ever seen cotton mature in eastern North Carolina.
Prior to the threat from Hurricane Earl, cotton was two to three weeks ahead of schedule. Many growers cancelled plans to defoliate cotton prior to Earl’s arrival, fearing open bolls would be a big target for high winds and heavy rains.
Still, Peele says, the crop is going to be much earlier than usual.
Further up the coast in North Carolina, Perquimans County Extension agent Lewis Smith says cotton will be at least two weeks ahead of schedule. “I don’t ever remember a year in which growers in our county combined soybeans and defoliated cotton in August,” Smith says.
With very little damage from Hurricane Earl, Smith says he expects defoliation to begin a day or so after the storm and will still keep most cotton at least two to three weeks ahead of schedule.
“The advantage of being early in our part of North Carolina is that our growers tend to run a little late getting cotton picked, particularly where farmers are harvesting corn. Corn was harvested early, so having cotton ready this early in the growing season isn’t really going to be much of a problem,” says Smith.
“The re-growth in some of the later maturing cotton isn’t going to be sufficient enough for growers to wait. So, most of our growers are going to go ahead and pick what they can get from the early crop, get cotton out of the way and be ready to pick soybeans, which are also early this year,” says Paul Smith, Extension ag agent in Gates County, N.C.
“I don’t ever remember seeing a season like this, and not just for cotton.”
The heat, often at record levels for extended days at a time and severe drought in some areas, just produced an unusual growth pattern for crops. “In general, our yields on all our crops are going to average at best and in some cases, like cotton, a good bit lower than the past couple of years,” he adds.
After several years of cotton acreage going down significantly, acreage was up across the state and the Extension agents in North Carolina and Bill Peele agree that it’s an unfortunate year for cotton production to be average, especially because of good prices for cotton this year.
In Southeast Virginia, cotton consultant Wendell Cooper says he’s never seen cotton on such a large scale mature so early. “It’s all due to the extremely high temperatures we had early in the season – cotton got off to a tremendous early start, and areas that had moisture produced an early crop,” Cooper says.
Earliness in Virginia cotton is a sporadic thing—some years some areas are earlier than others, Cooper notes. “However, this year cotton is early across the state and more uniformly early than any crop I’ve seen in nearly 30 years of working cotton crops in Virginia and North Carolina,” he adds.
“Our cotton crop is not going to be the disaster we thought it would be back when we were in the grips of record heat and extended periods of drought. On the other hand, yields will be a far cry from what we’ve had the past couple of years,” Cooper says.
In South Carolina, the heat and drought were less a factor than in the more upper areas of the cotton belt in the Southeast. The only negative factor on the cotton crop this year was record high night time temperatures.
Clemson Cotton Specialist Mike Jones says cotton generally got enough moisture throughout the state. However, consecutive days of 95 degrees F and up, plus high temperatures and night-time temperatures in the mid-80s has taken a toll on yields.
The cotton plant expends a huge amount of energy surviving the high daytime temperatures and typically much cooler night temperatures allow the plant to recover and use energy for fruiting, Jones says.
Speaking at a recent field day, Jones said, “We don’t really know how much impact on yield these long stretches of high night-time temperatures will have on yield and quality of our cotton crop. The cotton looks good and the yield potential appears to be there, but cotton growers may not know exactly what they’ve got until they pick their cotton.”
In South Carolina, the hot, dry weather that spurred cotton plant growth early in the year also spurred the growth of pigweed, especially glyphosate-resistant pigweed. Clemson weed specialist Mike Marshall says the problem continues to get worse for cotton growers.
One solution that has worked well has been to use a carpet-covered roller bar, coated with various herbicides with activity on pigweed. Once the cotton plants slowed down and were overtaken by pigweed or Palmer amaranth, several growers used the roller bar to take out fairly large pigweed, he says.
Though the South Carolina crop won’t be as early as cotton to the north, most contend it will be somewhat early and likely not be much above average in general and less than average in yield in some parts of the state.
In the upper Southeast, cotton acreage will be up significantly and overall cotton production will be greater than the past couple of years. However, summer heat and drought and the earliness of the crop will prevent overall production to be nearly as much higher as it could have been in a more normal weather year.