With the cool, rainy, late start to the 2013 growing season, Mid-South cotton producers knew that to mature out their crop, Mother Nature would have to tack a few extra days, warm, dry days onto the growing season.
She did exactly that over much of the central to lower Mid-South, and crops are responding with near-record yields as harvest gets underway. However, rain was holding up picking in some areas.
According to LSU AgCenter Extension cotton specialist David Kerns, “From what I hear is being delivered to the gin, yields look outstanding. I can’t say for sure if we’ll break a yield record, but there is a strong possibility of it.”
Kerns has seen dryland cotton yielding as much as three bales an acre. Four-bale crops have been reported on irrigated land.
Fewer overall acres (128,000 acres) in the state pushed cotton to better soils and is driving some of the good yields, Kerns said. “But we really had a good year. We had good moisture and timely rain in cotton-growing areas. It turned off dry in August, but for the most part the crop was made. Up until just recently, we’ve had a dry harvest. So we haven’t lost a lot of lint due to weather events.”
Insects weren’t a huge factor either. “We didn’t have any train wrecks not being able to control pests,” Kerns said. “And we have good varieties.”
Kerns won’t go so far as to say that cotton acres may increase next year because of the promising yields. “So much depends on the grain and cotton prices. I think we’ll stabilize acres, and we might see a little bump up.
“It boils down to simple economics. Farmers are making more money growing corn and soybeans than they are cotton right now, so that is what they are going to plant.”
According to Mississippi Extension cotton specialist Darrin Dodds, the state’s producers had picked 40 percent to 50 percent of the cotton crop before harvest was interrupted by rainfall in mid-October. “It seems like we would have a five- or six-day harvest window, and then a rain would keep us out for a few days.”
With the smaller acreage in Mississippi, it won’t take long for the state to finish up, according to Dodds. “We need this rain to get out of here. We need three or four weeks to wrap this up. We can make up some ground quickly.”
The effects of good growing conditions and lower nighttime temperatures on the Mississippi crop are evident in early yield reports. “We are picking some really good cotton,” Dodds said. “I picked a variety trial yesterday in Clarksdale that had two varieties that went over 2,000 pounds. These were half-acre plots, six-rows wide.”
Dodds says the weather earlier this season was challenging, “but in September and even into October, we had some good, hot dry weather which we needed to help mature this crop on out. Last week (the second week in October) we made up a lot of ground with all the sunshiny days.”
Dodds said Mississippi growers “did the best job of weed control they’ve done since the resistant pigweed problem exploded. Our farmers really got aggressive with it, not only in cotton, but in a lot of other crops.
“We did have our fair share of insect problems. The hot, dry weather contributed to more spider mites. Plant bugs were here, but they weren’t in disastrous numbers.”
Dodds says the crop will be profitable for most producers “with the yields we’ve been picking. Given that cotton is an expensive crop to produce, when you’re picking 1,500 pounds to 1,600 pounds, you’re doing okay at today’s prices. Not everybody is doing that, but we’ve had a good year. It would not surprise me to see us break a state record for yield.”
Tom Barber, Extension cotton specialist for Arkansas, has heard reports of exceptional cotton yields in southeast Arkansas, which is not surprising since 100-bushel soybean harvests have been common there. Barber says the cotton crop was about 10 percent harvested in mid-October when it was halted by rain.
“I’ve heard yields of up to 1,800 pounds. It’s looking pretty good. We just need to get it all out. We had about three inches of rain recently down in the Rohwer area.”
September weather was a factor in the potential basket buster, noted Barber. “It felt a lot like August – hot and dry, in a lot of cases, it was even hotter. That really finished out the top crop. We just maximized our yields with irrigation and heat units. That’s why that crop is so good.”
Meanwhile, Northeast Arkansas had three weeks or four weeks of cloudy, rainy weather. “We have a gap in the middle crop from shed during that period. But I’m hearing of some yields of between 1,100 pounds and 1,200 pounds.”
While the northeast cotton crop didn’t reach its potential, it was consistent, Barber said. “We had a lot of dryland and irrigated fields yielding the same in some areas. That means we had plenty of moisture, and we didn’t spend a lot of money pumping water.
“We did have tremendous plant bug pressure in places, but overall, I don’t know that it was that expensive to grow. We have a long way to go. We need the next couple of weeks to be sunny and dry.”
Further north, in west Tennessee, some 2-bale cotton is being picked as harvest was just getting underway. But in a lot of areas, good late-season temperatures just couldn’t overcome early problems, says Larry Steckel, Extension weed scientist for Tennessee. “In our official variety trials, cotton was rank and not much was open, so last week we had to put out defoliant and boll opener. We were losing open bolls down low to boll rot. Exactly how that’s going to turn out, I don’t know.”
The rest of the crop lies somewhere the aforementioned extremes, Steckel says. “We had a lot of plant bug issues this year. A lot times, producers would spray, then they would get a rain that washed the spray off, and the plant bugs took out several nodes.”
Steckel doubts that the state will achieve USDA’s projection of a record-yielding crop. “Quite frankly, we probably have that in the field, but picking it is going to be the problem, between the boll rot and just running out of calendar. We had some upper bolls that were getting close, but they’re not going to mature. I still think we’re going to have a good crop.”
Steckel said west Tennessee cotton producers did a good job with pigweed this season. “Part of that was that we had fewer acres. Liberty worked this year, with the higher humidity this year. Our pre-plant and pre-emergence herbicides worked better, too.”