LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- As the Delta cotton harvest proceeds, the ramifications of chillier weather and a large percentage of late-planted fields are becoming clear.
"There's very little picking activity north of I-40 (a highway that bisects both Arkansas and Tennessee)," says Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. "The vast majority of the cotton there was replanted and it's very late. There are producers riding I-40 that are only now putting pickers in the field. Here it is, the first of October, and we're just starting up in the middle of the state."
Arkansas' cotton crop is "very strange. The crop is much more mature than what you'd ever guess just by eye-balling it or going by percent of open bolls. You can take a knife to a plant and find mature bolls nearly all the way up the plant. The bolls are mature enough to defoliate, but they're only 25 to 30 percent open. That's making a late crop with an early fall end up being even later."
Is Robertson worried about getting this crop out? Are there fears that producers could get caught in a bad weather situation like last year?
"Heck, yeah. I've been trying to get the message out: you cannot go by percent open bolls. We've still got a lot of cotton with very little open. We're supposed to have decent weather (through around Oct. 14) and I think this may be the last good window to get in and make a big push with defoliation."
Tennessee has some really good cotton — the portion of the crop planted in late April and early May — being picked, says Chism Craig, Extension cotton specialist. The rest of the crop is anywhere from 5 percent to 30 percent open. The state has harvested between 10 and 15 percent of the crop.
"The problem we've got is something like half our cotton acres were planted after May 25," says Craig. "I've had a bunch of calls asking what to do with it. There was a forecasted freeze for (Oct. 6), and many producers were nervous and went ahead and pulled the trigger. They knocked leaves off and harvested some fields that were only 5 percent or 10 percent open.
"Was that the right thing to do? In the face of a freeze, probably. But the freeze didn't materialize, and the producers that waited now have a few days of warmer weather to work with. You never know, and it's a tough call either way."
As far as yields, Craig has spoken with very few producers picking under 1.5 bales. He's also hearing some yields close to 3 bales — "but that's speculation based on module numbers. Regardless, there's some good cotton in the state. Grades have been good. Folks are pleased with their grades — a lot of 53 and 54 cent cotton. That's a lot better than last year."
Meanwhile, cotton harvest has gone "quite well" in Louisiana, says Sandy Stewart, Extension cotton specialist. "We've had nice weather for the last three weeks or so.
The USDA, and I have no reason to believe they're not accurate, says we're about 60 percent harvested across the state. We're progressing well."
Yield-wise, Stewart has heard numbers between 650 pounds and 1,300 pounds. "Most of the crop, I believe, will be above average — in the 800 pounds to 1,000 pounds range."
Missouri's Bootheel is seeing "quite a bit of harvesting now," says Bobby Phipps, Extension cotton specialist. "We just got started. I'm hearing some good yields thus far — of course, those are going to be our best fields. But there are some growers making around 2 bales."
Once leaves were knocked off, Missouri's cotton looked surprisingly good, says Phipps.
"I think I misjudged it some. Of course, we're going on the early-planted crop, and we still haven't seen what the later crop will do. This still won't be a great crop, but it's a whole lot better than I thought a couple of months ago. Considering how the season started, a 'good' crop would be a miracle.
Probably 20 percent of Missouri's crop is very late. Right now, there's almost nothing open in those fields.
"This week has turned back warmer and that should help considerably. Anything planted after mid-May lacks a lot in maturity. Regardless, the chances of getting the late crop to mature out are slim and none. I'm suggesting that producers go ahead and defoliate. It's so late if they don't we're liable to get caught in rains," says Phipps.
Luckily, most of the bolls in the top are full-size and appear to be as mature as those in the bottoms. Usually, bolls in the bottom are mature while those in the top lag. But this year, for some reason, it appears that all the bolls are the same age.
"That's odd, and I haven't an idea what caused it," says Phipps. "Regardless, I'm telling producers to hit the late-season crop with defoliants so it'll be ready to harvest the last week of this month. We've got to stay ahead of the bad weather."
Defoliation and boll-opening concerns run through all Delta states.
Boll opening, even in the southern half of the Arkansas, is sometimes taking three weeks, says Robertson. "It's just incredibly slow. I looked at a leaf-drop test yesterday that had been out a week. I was disappointed in some of the treatments. Everything is very slow.
"Again, it's a strange year. We hardly had any days with temperatures over 100. Many times, we run into dry weather in September and high temperatures and the plants shut down. That makes it easy to defoliate because the plant is in sync with what we're trying to do.
"But this year, when we were ready to get the plants to shed leaves, they still had plenty of horsepower and wanted to keep growing. They just weren't as stressed as they normally are at this time of year. Our bolls were just as mature, but they weren't open."
The main problem Louisiana producers have had is defoliation, says Stewart. "We're just not used to defoliating with nighttime temperatures in the low 50s and high 40s. We've faced those chilly temps over the last couple of weeks. We're finally getting leaves off the plants and keeping the pickers running. But defoliation has been more of a challenge and more expensive than we're used to. That's been the story state-wide."
Normally, when using a two-shot program, a producer will apply a first shot of defoliant and a week later apply a second. Within five days of the second application, he's usually able to pick.
"Right now," says Stewart, "it's more like 10 days after the second application before he can pick. Some of our crop — maybe 20 percent — is late. We're worried about that fifth more than the rest. With these cooler temps, boll development is finished. I've looked at fields that haven't really changed in the last three weeks. In my opinion, it's probably best to go ahead and pick the portion that's open."
In Tennessee, also, defoliants are "slooow," says Craig. "The first two weeks of defoliation — say mid-September — it didn't matter what was put out, it still looked good. We had Cadillac treatments that looked fantastic and some defoliation demos with cheaper products looked great, too."
Now, however, it's becoming very difficult to defoliate.
"Folks are saying, 'The treatment I was putting out earlier was working in a week. Now, that treatment isn't working after two weeks.' I've actually gotten many growers to go with a two-shot type system. They'll put out a conditioning treatment and then clean up the rest of the leaves and open bolls. That's a tough sell in Tennessee because most producers here are used to spraying once and being done with it.
"I hope the weather holds up. We need another month of dryness and moderate temperatures so we can get this late cotton out."
One thing is obvious, says Craig. "The growers that were very aggressive with their plant growth regulators (PGR) on this late cotton were on the right track. Those that waited until late to put out heavy doses are behind the 8-ball now.
"In fact, I went to see a grower who had a field split. He said normally where he would have put out 6 or 8 ounces of a PGR, he put out a pint on half the field. He waited until 10 days later to put out a pint on the second half. The difference between those two halves is amazing."
Robertson has hopes for the Arkansas crop. "I spoke with a producer yesterday who farms around Haynes. He said he was picking a lot of 2.3-bale cotton and has some fields that will go close to 2.5 bales. That's good. He got his crop in late April and early May. Our potential is there with early cotton. If we'd had a better September, our late cotton would be a lot better."
Much money was spent controlling fall armyworms in Arkansas' late cotton.
"People also got sick and tired of treating for plant bugs. Between late-season pests and defoliation questions, consultants have been run ragged this season."
Missouri producers had trouble with plant bugs all summer. "A bunch of squares were knocked off due to them," says Phipps. "Some fields have mid-plant zones that are spotty."
In the last month, stinkbug activity in Louisiana has been tremendous. That will hurt the late crop even more.
"Eventually, we had to quit spraying stink bugs because it wasn't economically feasible," says Stewart. "It remains to be seen what effect stink bugs will have on yield and quality. But on the late-planted cotton, it will hurt in some way."
Tennessee had a smattering of late-season pests. "We had to deal with some bollworms, some fall armyworms and some late stink bugs," says Craig. "There were also reports of a lot of late plant bugs that we decided not to spray simply because of economics. It turns out the decision not to spray was the right one because we're not going to get a lot of the fruit off the plants. We've simply run out of time."
Robertson agrees and says it's time to move. "We're to the point now, especially in some of the late fields in the northeast, where we could leave the cotton in the field until Thanksgiving and not make any progress in maturing fibers out. What we have now is what we'll end up with. Heat units are finished. We've got to get the crop out. It's past time."
(Editor's note: for information on Mississippi's cotton harvest, please see accompanying story)