Most emerged cotton in cotyledon state when late frost hit early-planting Mississippi fields.
Not quite willing to loosen his grip just yet, Jack Frost jigged a farewell tour across the Delta Tuesday evening. Thinking the fellow long gone, farmers who had already planted cotton were surprised to see Mr. Frost take a final bow.
What's the potential fall-out?
“Temperatures here varied anywhere from the mid-30s all the way up to 40 across most of the state's cotton-growing areas. That held true until you got into the deep southern area where it was a bit warmer,” says Louisiana Extension cotton specialist John Barnett.
“There's a good bit of frost today on roofs and the ground. In the worst hit area we had probably 2,000 acres of cotton that was already up out of the ground.
I'll be interested to see in the next couple of days how much damage was done.”
Louisiana also had some cotton north of Lake Providence (in the extreme northeastern part of the state) and around Shreveport (in the extreme northwestern part of the state) that had emerged. Barnett suspects it was hurt.
There was also several thousand acres of emerged cotton further south — Tensas, Avoyelles, Catahoula, and Rapides Parishes. It should be below the frost-line, but it was still extremely cool.
“Most of our cotton hasn't been planted yet, but there is a small percentage — probably less than 10,000 acres total — that was already in the ground. Some farmers jumped out when temperatures were warmer last week and planted. Soil temperatures were high, the seed germinated and pushed up to a stand.
“That was early planting we probably could have done without, to be honest. But people get in a big hurry sometimes,” says Barnett.
Right now, the USDA prediction is for 800,000 acres of cotton in Louisiana. Barnett says there will be at least that much. The current prediction is a pretty sharp increase over last year when the state had 690,000 cotton acres harvested.
“The reason for the acreage jump is that everything is very flat, the commodity markets are down, and cotton offers the best chance for farmers. Another reason is our boll weevil eradication program has been very effective. Even last year we saw a sharp drop in insecticide costs. That helps farmers make a decision for cotton.”
Louisiana is going to have all kinds of Roundup Ready cotton planted in the state, says Barnett. As he's been doing for the last few months, Barnett continues to caution farmers not to put in late Roundup applications. “Time the applications by what Monsanto suggests and you'll have far fewer problems. There were a lot of late applications last year on cotton over-the-top that impacted our yields.”
USDA has cotton acreage in Arkansas pegged at 1.05 million. Arkansas Extension cotton specialist Bill Robertson originally thought it would be around 1.1 million. There are a few areas where there's a lot more cotton going in, he says.
“There hasn't been a lot of planting yet. I visited with a Desha County Extension agent Tuesday morning and he felt at most there's probably a few thousand acres planted there. That's probably the area where more acres have been planted than any other,” says Robertson.
“I tell you, I'm really concerned about any cotton that's already in the ground. I stopped between Little Rock and Lonoke this morning and took a temperature reading of the soil. At 8 a.m., the soil temperature was 47 degrees at two inches. Optimum planting temperatures is 60 degrees at two inches for three straight days. We're way off that.”
Physiologically, the plants already emerged and exposed to the cold could be in trouble. The most sensitive time for a cotton plant to chilling injury is when it begins to take up water. If that's going on when temperatures are below 50 degrees, seedlings will often die, says Robertson.
“Literature says even four hours of 50 degree temperatures can lead to the cortex of the plants sloughing of. That slows growth and development because the plant is having to regenerate that. It makes the plant more vulnerable to pathogens. The tap-root may develop, but the plants that live may be stunted. So even if cotton plants emerge from this freeze alive, they'll likely still struggle,” says Robertson.
There's probably 7,000 acres of planted cotton in the whole state, says Robertson. Last year was similar.
“At this time last year very little cotton had been planted. We had wet weather that kept farmers out of the field super early. There was a small window around April 20 when a bunch of farmers got in and planted. Those that planted then had some of the better cotton the state produced — especially in southeastern Arkansas.”
The first week in April, Robertson had farmers wanting to know what to do because soil temperatures were fine to plant, but the calendar said it was too early. A lot of the farmers have so many acres, they often have to start a bit early. “If they do that, we encourage them to look at their seeds' cool test on germination. They should start with lots with the most vigor. It isn't perfect, but that's the best tool we have currently.”
Farmers should know, though, that lots with cool tests in the 90's still won't produce plants 10-feet tall and bullet-proof, says Robertson.
“And there's another potential thing to worry over. The growers know that there are many varieties that there isn't a big supply of. If they have to re-plant, that variety may not be available.”
The false summer — a short spell of 80 degree days and warm nights — allowed Mississippi cotton farmers to start planting around April 9, says Mississippi Extension cotton specialist Will McCarty.
“The soil temperatures warmed up and it looked pretty good. We actually had some cotton emerge in 5 to 7 days, which is unusual for this time of year. Generally we get a cool spell at the end of April and I guess this latest frost was it.”
McCarty says between 10,000 and 20,000 acres of cotton has been planted in the state. He says there was reported frost in areas where there was emerged cotton.
“We have a little more cotton planted in the Delta area than in the hills. How much damage the frost did hasn't been determined yet. That'll be figured when the sun shines on these plants for a few days.”
The vast majority of emerged cotton was in cotyledon stage when the frost hit. That means the plants should be damaged less than if they'd reached first true leaf.
“We're telling growers to look into the terminals after the sun has shined for a day or two. If the terminal turns black that's an indication it was frozen.”
If the plant was frozen, there's a chance it will live but produce “crazy cotton.” Such cotton appears to have been eaten up by thrips or plant bugs, says McCarty.
“I don't anticipate seeing a lot of cotton frozen to death. What concerns me more is the cotton planted just prior to the rain that came before the freeze. Cotton seed that's in the soil that soaks up water during wet, cold conditions can have damaged root systems, reduced emergence and can lead to a lot of seedling disease.”
Anytime you plant cotton it's a gamble, says McCarty. But planting cotton in early April exposes fields to big risks.
“USDA has us pegged at 1.5 million acres of cotton in the state. I'm in agreement with that. If we have a very good planting season, we should get 1.5 million-plus.
“However, if rain sets in, that acreage will be below that. A lot of the acres going into cotton are on low-lying, poorly-drained soils.”
If farmers are looking for advice, McCarty offers this: “Wait and start planting on the warm cycle behind this front. Wait until it warms up a day or two before putting seed into the ground. And use an appropriate fungicide to protect against seedling disease.”