If there was ever an event that would make a cotton producer throw up his hands and walk out on farming, this is close to being it, real close. In the blink of an eye, the Mid-South's south Delta cotton crop has gone from a potential basket buster to just plain busted.
It began in August and early September, mostly in areas south of I-40, where extended periods of heavy rainfall combined with high humidity levels caused widespread boll rot and associated problems. Just weeks earlier, producers here were preparing to harvest a record crop.
“This is the worst cotton disaster I have ever seen,” says Bill Meredith with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Stoneville, Miss. “We had a bad year in 1984, but it wasn't nearly this bad and it wasn't nearly as widespread.”
According to Meredith, an unbelievable 14.15 inches of rain has descended on the Stoneville, Miss. area since Aug. 1. “Our rainfall total for August and the first part of September is the highest we've had here as long as they've been keeping records. And to make matters worse, we've also had high temperatures and high humidity levels.
Meredith said that the Stoneville complex recorded 8.47 inches of rainfall in August and another 5.68 inches of rainfall from the end of August to Sept. 3. Normal rainfall for the month of August is 2.27 inches.
“These environmental conditions have created all kinds of disasters for us,” he said. “Some of the cotton has blown on the ground, some of the cotton has lodged, some of the cotton has boll rot, and all of it has re-growth. The worst part of it is that all of the cotton that was open has seed germinating in the boll,” Meredith says. “All of the good early cotton is really devastated.”
For those growers whose open cotton bolls are sprouting new growth, Meredith recommends growers use caution. “With all of this germination going on, we're want to try to save whatever few top bolls are there, but much of it is guesswork because we've never been down this road before,” he says.
“We do know that once the affected cotton is harvested, it needs to be ginned as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the plant material that has germinated in the boll will begin to decay and that will result in heat in the module, or trailer, and off-color cotton,” he says.
Another question mark that has yet to be answered is the value of this year's crop of cottonseed. Meredith says the commercial companies that are producing seed are facing almost a complete loss of product and he's not sure what other uses are available for seed with 10 to 20 percent germination.
Bill Kennedy with Duncan Gin in Inverness, Miss., agrees the market value for already germinated cottonseed is questionable and may or may not offset growers' ginning costs. “We think much of this cotton is going to be ginnable, but the fiber quality is going to be poor,” he says.
Cotton growers in Louisiana are also feeling the negative effects of excessive rainfall in August and early September. According to the National Weather Service, 2.53 inches of rain fell between Sept. 1 and Sept. 3 in northeastern Louisiana. The normal amount for that time period is 0.31 inches. The year-to-date rainfall data shows a total of 46.79 inches of rainfall in that area, which is almost one foot more than the 34.92 inches of rain that is normal in northeast Louisiana.
“We've received about seven inches of rain in a little over a week. At least 20 percent of the state's cotton fields are experiencing problems with seed germinating in the bolls,” says LSU AgCenter cotton specialist John Barnett. “We're also estimating 20 to 30 percent boll rot across the state. As you move further south into central Louisiana the incidence of boll rot increases to about 50 percent. The worst case of boll rot that I've seen is a field in Avoyelles Parish, which has about 80 percent boll rot. These bolls are lost and will never be harvested.”
Like their other Mid-South counterparts, Louisiana cotton producers were preparing to harvest what they thought would be lint yields above 700 pounds per acre. That was before the continual rainfall caused boll rot and hard lock to set in to the state's cotton crop.
“What was once an above-average crop is now a below average crop,” Barnett says. “We thought this was going to be one of the best crops we've ever had. However, a lot of the cotton has since laid down and now everything that is on the ground is starting to rot and germinate in the burr.”
Meredith says, “This is the fourth disaster year in a row for Delta cotton growers. Just a few short weeks ago farmers were really feeling good about this crop and now they may not even have a crop to harvest. The gins are going to be very slow, equipment is going to be broken down and we're going to run short of trailers for the harvested cotton. It's a hurtful situation all around.”
How this devastation will translate into dollars is anyone's guess, according to Meredith. “At 40 cents a pound without any discounts, one wonders if its going to be worth picking what is left out there. After the discounts are deducted it may cost more to harvest some of this cotton than it is worth.”