LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — As Hurricane Ivan churns toward land, Arkansas and Louisiana cotton producers are watching the horizon and praying skies remain clear.

“Our cotton is looking better all the time,” says Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. “It’s filling out very well. I’ve heard some reports of some 1,200-pound cotton that’s been picked early. Defoliants have gone out in many areas. I’m very happy with the boll-load we have.”

In Louisiana, producers have defoliated “a lot” of cotton since early September, says Sandy Stewart, Extension cotton specialist. Pickers are rolling in many places and gins are opening their doors.

“Folks are keeping one eye on the hurricane and the other eye on their crops,” says Stewart. “We’re nervous, no doubt about it. With the storm looming, I’ve talked to some producers who are slowing defoliation. I think that’s a good idea until we’re sure of the storm’s movement. In the face of a hurricane, it’s a lot better having leaves and closed bolls.”

On the other hand, in fields with crops closer to harvest, Stewart says, some producers are hurrying a second-shot defoliation treatment. “They figure there’s enough time to get in and pick.”

The Louisiana cotton picked thus far has reportedly yielded from 300 pounds to 800 pounds. Stewart admits disappointment at the lower end, but he never expects early cotton will be the season’s best. Much of the early crop was stunted with early rains.

“I thought some of this early cotton would have done better. It’s not too far off — some of the 400-pound cotton I thought would go 500 or 600 pounds.

“We have a lot of later cotton that will take a good September to set and mature the top bolls. So far, this month had been great — lots of sunlight and ample heat units. It’s been just what we needed on this late crop.”

Through mid-September nice weather has also helped defoliation treatments. “The treatments have worked very quickly — we’ve had no need for excessive rates and many have been able to defoliate in one pass.”

The Arkansas crop is looking much better than Robertson expected. At one point, he says, “we were a week’s worth of 100-degree temperatures from shutting down our crop completely. We were a week away from disaster. I don’t think many folks know how close we really were.”

In mid-July, Robertson out of the state a week. Until then, his late-planted test fields were growing well. “I’d put a Pix test out and was about to follow with another treatment. But when I got back, the cotton had almost cut out. I couldn’t believe it. One more week of that and the crop would have been finished.”

At the tipping point, however, the state received rain and temperatures cooled. This year, says Robertson, “We seem to keep turning over the right cards. We’ve been blessed.”

Robertson has pulled bolls to check fiber quality and found micronaire counts are strong. “The highest count we got was 5.2 — and that was on the bottom horizon of fruit. Based on the small samples we’ve done, we’re very pleased.”

The coming hurricane has Robertson worried, though. “I wish it would hold off raining until November. We’ve got fields close to needing pickers. If rain hits, most fields are going to have open cotton get wet. And rain on a boll that’s just starting to crack will cause hard-lock.

“We’re growing a lot of cotton for seed in the state. A big rain will take a toll on seed quality. I’m seeing really good seed numbers. Hopefully the storm skips by us, and we can preserve them.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com