The benchmark often cited for finishing a cotton season dismally is 1984. Unfortunately, a new benchmark may be in the offing.
“The early-maturing cotton — the cotton that's open — has been damaged significantly. As cotton is cracking open, we're getting hard locking and boll rot due to high temperatures and humidity,” says Will McCarty, Mississippi Extension cotton specialist.
In essence, for the last 10 to 15 days, conditions in cotton fields have been very much like those simulated in a germinator, McCarty says. Temperatures are over 80 degrees and humidity near 100 percent.
A list of troubles
As a result of these conditions, Mississippi is seeing the worst sprouting of cottonseed in bolls that McCarty can recall.
“The sprouting of seed is worse this year than it was in 1984. That year, we had over 20 consecutive days of rainfall that lead to a disastrous harvest. 1984 is the year many point to as the ultimate bad harvest year. The rain came later that year in cooler conditions.”
But right now, things look just as bad if not worse, says McCarty. Currently, the damage to the cotton that's open is worse than in 1984, he says.
And late-maturing cotton is also in danger as boll rot is present across the state. However, at this point, McCarty says his concerns are tempered because the damage isn't nearly to the degree that is seen in open cotton.
“Seed in open cotton is approaching worthlessness. It's very difficult to gin this cotton and the seed value will likely be insufficient to meet ginning costs,” says McCarty.
Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist, says McCarty's views are dead-on.
“It's unfortunate to have to agree with Will, but Arkansas' crop — especially in fields below the Arkansas River — has deteriorated terribly. I think we're getting the same calls and seeing the same thing in our fields. There's no easy way to say this: the crop has gone downhill fast and it could get worse.”
Problems aren't existent across the whole state, but Robertson says some farms in the lower part of the state received 8 inches of rain. Around Winchester, Ark., farms got 4 inches. Around Pine Bluff, Ark. — where fields received just 2.5 inches — the boll rot is “terrible.”
Robertson has some very early cotton in the southern part of the state. On Sept. 4, he wanted to start defoliation work. “No dice. The fields are still in standing water.”
There are areas of Mississippi that have taken the brunt of the weather, says McCarty.
“The worst of this is from Highway 82 south. From Highway 82 up to Highway 6 is pretty bad. North of Highway 6 didn't get quite as much rain, so the problems aren't as severe. But I don't want it to sound like they don't have problems there, too. From Cleveland, Miss., to Natchez, Miss., the cotton looks terrible. The problems are also bad in the east part of Mississippi.”
Any seed being grown in Mississippi is in great jeopardy of deteriorating in the field, says McCarty. There is seed grown further west that can be salvaged, but any cotton being grown for seed in Mississippi will “definitely be scrutinized and much of it will be unacceptable. Some seed will likely be so deteriorated, it won't be acceptable even for the oil mills.”
Incredibly, McCarty says, he's seeing cotyledonary leaves inside bolls. “It's unbelievable what some of these bolls look like. It's not just cotton. Any grain sorghum that hasn't been harvested has sprouted in the heads and is ruined.”
“When we get to the point where seed is sprouting in the boll, that's trouble. Gins hate it because it slips through the ribs on the saw. Seed value plummets. Nothing good can come from this,” says Robertson.
Giving advice on defoliants in a situation like this is very difficult, says Robertson.
“It's durned if you do and durned if you don't. In many cases it's going to be a judgment call. I visited with a farmer this morning whose node above cracked boll is running around 6. We want that number around 4. But his canopy is dense, and he feels as though he needs to do something to go ahead and knock it open. I'm just not sure if that's the wrong thing or the right thing.”
If you defoliate cotton early, micronaire decreases. If a farmer has a variety that tends towards a high micronaire, he has a little more of a cushion to deal with.
“Mike is a component of yield, though. So do you get it immature in the basket or leave it to rot and fall on the ground? Some of the cotton I'm looking at is running node above cracked boll at 10 or 11. No way can I put a rig in to defoliate that. We're just going to have to hope for drier weather,” says Robertson.
Mississippi farmers are having a tough time getting defoliants out between rain showers, says McCarty. “Boll rot is as bad this year as I've seen in a long, long time. Farmers should identify the young bolls needing to mature and let them open before defoliating.
What we really need is a big Canadian weather system to push in and drop humidity down and get air circulating. We need a breeze. We can't control that, though.
“What we can control is getting leaves off the crop as soon as possible. When the bolls a farmer needs to mature are finished, get the defoliants out. Don't wait.”
McCarty and Robertson say it appears similar problems might extend right across the southern half of the Cotton Belt.
“This could spell disaster for several states. Mississippi alone is looking at some 1 million acres of cotton significantly affected. You add in a couple of other states and that's frightening,” says McCarty.
Many Arkansas farmers are busy getting rice out and looking at getting early cotton defoliated “so there's a place to put the pickers when the rice harvest is finished. Many farmers I've talked to don't even want to walk in their cotton fields. They know the rot is there and they don't want to see it. There's not a lot they can do,” says Robertson.
The end of the season is “tearing Mississippi's cotton crop up,” says McCarty. “The farmers are going to get hammered. It's shaping up to look like an absolute disaster for our early cotton. USDA figures won't come out until the middle of this month. I'm not sure how much this will be reflected in those numbers. I can tell you, though, that we're looking at significant yield and quality reductions.”