Slow-moving rain across much of the Mid-South brought cotton pickers to a halt in mid-September, stalling the region’s march toward one of the earliest harvest in recent memory. The rains may also have affected the quality of the crop.
“We are shut down,” said Arkansas Extension cotton specialist Tom Barber in mid-September. “It may take a while to see the effects from this rain. If cotton was completely defoliated, we are going to have some stringing out. There wasn’t a lot of wind involved, it was just a long, slow rain. It’s going to take a few days for everything to dry out. Sunshine is the best thing on order right now.”
The rain was followed by a cool snap in parts of the Mid-South, and at press time, Barber was suggesting that growers hold off on resuming defoliation activities “until we see warmer temperatures. We’re always better off letting these cool snaps pass.”
In areas where the rain was continuous for three or four days with no sunshine, Barber is concerned about hard lock in fields. “I don’t want to alarm anyone, but hopefully the sun will come out, dry things out, and everything will be okay. But this rain hit us at the worst time possible as far as cotton is concerned.”
Barber estimates that about 10 percent of the Arkansas cotton crop had been harvested by mid-September, “and some early, irrigated cotton is looking pretty good. The turnout on this early harvest has been really high, 39 percent to 41 percent. That helps.”
Cotton yields so far have been variable, according to Barber. “I’ve heard of some dryland cotton that wasn’t even worth pulling a picker through and some irrigated cotton that yielded 1300 pounds.”
“Last week (mid-September) and the week before, a lot of defoliation went out. And from the looks of it, we got a lot of rain this week,” said Extension cotton specialist Darrin Dodds. “With temperatures dipping down for the next few days, it’s probably going to complicate defoliation to a degree. When you start getting temperature fluctuations like that, it can really cause some problems.”
The rainfall has stalled the prospect of a very early harvest, noted Dodds. “We started planting early, and we thought we would be early picking, but all that rain and cloudy weather we got the first 10 days of July gave us a fruiting gap in the middle in a good portion of the crop, which set us back a little bit. Then August and September have been cooler than usual, so we’ve not matured out like we normally do. So we’re back where we normally are for this time of the year.”
Dodds would be surprised if Mississippi producers hit USDA’s September yield projection of 990 pounds per acre. “But we still have a respectable crop. I haven’t seen a crop where we didn’t have a few bumps in the road.”
With the return of sunshine, Dodds believes that cotton picking in the state should be wide open by the last week in September and first couple of weeks of October.
Cotton harvest in the Missouri Bootheel was still on hold in mid-September, according to Mike Milam, agronomy specialist for Pemiscot and Dunklin counties. Rain and wind has caused some lodging in the crop. “Some of it was ready to be picked when the rains came through. They’ve been set back. I don’t think it will affect yield that much, but it will delay harvest.”
“Many producers are more than a little frustrated,” said John Kruse, Extension cotton specialist at the LSU AgCenter. “There was damage from Tropical Storm Isaac, particularly in the southern part of the state, where the storm had a lot more energy. But considering the fact that Isaac was a hurricane at one point, everyone agreed that we lucked out.”
Persistent rain lingered even after Isaac passed through the region, further delaying defoliation and harvest of the crop. “Some producers have out one shot of defoliant. Other producers are just now getting out their second shot of defoliant and there are some who have actually been able to pick. Some of the yields have been pretty encouraging.”
Still, many cotton producers could be somewhat disappointed considering early expectations for this crop, according to Kruse. “Those occasional afternoon thundershowers in July and August were really just right. The cotton crop was clicking along real well. We had some pretty high hopes, but we just have to take what Mother Nature gives us. We are still early in the harvest.”
With rains delaying defoliation applications, Kruse said, “We could see micronaire creeping back up. Color is probably going to be a mixed bag. Most of the cotton is still on the plant, and hasn’t been washed down on the ground. We would really like some sunshine.”
The west Tennessee cotton crop can be summed up in a very short phrase, “highly variable,” said Tennessee Extension cotton specialist Chris Main. “Some dryland cotton is picking 1,000 pounds. Other dryland cotton is picking 600 pounds.”
There is still a long way to go in the season, however, with only 5 percent to 10 percent of the crop harvested by Sept. 21. “We’re a lot further along on defoliation than we were a week ago,” Main said. “Upwards of half the crop has had at least one defoliation treatment. We are on track to finish up a little bit earlier than normal, as long as we don’t keep getting rains every four days.”
Main expects a 30 percent to 40 percent decline in acres for west Tennessee in 2013-14, but much could depend on how well individual producers fare with their corn and soybean crops. “Just like our cotton crop, our corn crop was highly variable. Producers who had good corn yields are going to plant more corn next year. For producers who had poor corn yields, 750-pound cotton still plays out better than 45-bushel to 50-bushel corn.
“If we come off a 40-bushel average soybean crop, there will be more soybeans planted next year, which will further erode cotton acres next year.”
On the other hand, Main noted, “producers are realizing that there is a reason why their fathers and grandfathers planted cotton on some of this ground. We will realize that when we plant a lot of grain and get two weeks to three weeks of really dry weather that doesn’t affect our cotton.”