High energy costs, the summer drought and hurricanes be danged! It's cotton harvest season in the Mid-South — time to reap repayment for the long, hard days and short, worried nights.
“We have a lot of leaves knocked off, and pickers have been rolling in the south Delta,” said Mississippi Extension cotton specialist Mike Barber. As of mid-September, “a lot of cotton in the Delta has been sprayed with defoliants. By next week, 50 percent to 60 percent of this crop will be defoliated.”
Cotton fields that were in the direct path of Hurricane Katrina not only lost yield, according to Barber, “but seemed to get ready all at the same time. A lot of that is due to damage from the wind. It's more prevalent in the central to south part of the state. This crop has come on quick.”
Barber says that Mississippi “will have a good crop in places. But when we start averaging everything together, we'll be lucky to get 850 pounds. In many areas, we didn't fill the top crop out like we have in the past.”
Hot, dry weather has hurt yield potential for cotton in the state, but should be a good test for several, new full-season varieties that have become popular in recent years. “Some of them we haven't seen in a hot, dry year.”
Cotton harvest was just under way in mid-September in west Tennessee, and according to Tennessee's Extension cotton specialist Chism Craig, initial yields have been surprisingly good. “But if we get close to last year's record, it would really surprise me. That doesn't mean we have a disastrous crop. Last year was exceptional.”
Costs to control weeds and insects were not overly expensive, “but when you throw in the costs of diesel, which will push harvesting costs up an average of $8 to $10 an acre, and fertilizer, it's going to be an expensive crop. That will eat into your profits.”
Ginners are not immune to higher energy costs either, according to Craig. “We're not looking at getting a tremendous amount of money back, if any, from the gin, which a lot of people count on for their farm income. So receipts are going to be down even though our yields are high.”
While costs have whittled away at the profitability of this year's crop, “cotton producers always get excited about harvesting their crop. They've worked hard all year, and want to see what they've got. On the other hand, producers are watching their pennies.”
According to Mike Milam, agronomy specialist at the University of Missouri Extension Service, the region's cotton harvest was under way in mid-September. “We have a lot that is open and ready to go as soon as it dries up a little.”
USDA has estimated a 892-pound yield for southeast Missouri. “I had thought that might be a little too ambitious, but I've seen some good defoliated cotton, irrigated and dryland.”
Cotton producers are finding that the money they saved on some inputs, like spraying for insects in a light year, were often offset by higher costs for fertilizer and fuel, according to Milam. “Hopefully, this will turn more people toward conservation tillage.”
A slowed rice harvest delayed defoliation for some Arkansas producers in mid-September, according to Bill Robertson, the state's cotton specialist. “Producers are wanting to get their rice out, and they don't want to get too far ahead of the cotton picker. Cotton is lot more weatherproof with the leaves on it.
“A big part of the crop has at least one pass of defoliant. A lot of our cotton is irrigated, tall and rank, mid-chest to shoulder high. That's at least two-shot cotton. South Arkansas is about 90 percent defoliated. In northeast Arkansas, they're just starting,”
Mother Nature was much more selective on whom she bestowed a good growing environment for cotton, noted Robertson. “The rains caught some producers at a bad time, and I know others who are going to have a higher farm average this year than last. But it's not going to be that way across the state. I see some cotton where the bolls are there, but it's just not fluffing out.”
Energy and fertilizer costs have taken a bite out of grower budgets, according to Robertson. “At the tail end, we had a bout with fall armyworms and beet armyworms. We had some costs there that took us by surprise.”
As to the future, “a lot of cotton producers are scratching their heads, wondering if they'll plant more beans in 2006. I've visited some rice producers who are considering going to cotton on ground that doesn't hold water well. But I feel like cotton acres will be up in 2006.”
According to Louisiana Extension cotton specialist Sandy Stewart, “we have a good bit of cotton ready to harvest and all of the gins are running. Cotton producers have been very pleased with yields so far, anywhere from 700 pounds per acre on our drought-stressed, non-irrigated cotton to 1,300 pounds on some of the better land.
“Defoliation has not been a problem and all our cotton has gotten ready fast. It's been hot enough that our tank mixes have been working well. I hope it keeps up, but everyone has his eye on that storm (Hurricane Rita) down in the Gulf.”
Stewart noted that with higher diesel fuel costs and lower costs for ethephon, “there has been heavy use of boll openers. Nobody is going to want to pick cotton twice. Diesel availability has gotten better, but you have to pay for it, that's the problem.”