For two years in a row, wet weather has come at the wrong time for Mid-South cotton grower Erle West Barham.
In 2001, it was August rains which resulted in boll rot. "It was like the wheels came off," said Barham, who farms 3,100 acres around Greenwood, Miss. "So many farmers went ahead and picked and cut the stalks, just to get it over with. We didn't do that. We picked it and kept fighting. We scrapped it and managed to pick over 800 pounds (total), and we had about 60 percent boll rot. That was the difference. We didn't make any money, but we got out with our hide."
This year, Barham was not as concerned with boll rot as with what wind and rain might do to fields that were defoliated and ready to pick. Those fears were not unfounded. On one day in late September, Tropical Storm Isidore dumped rain and open cotton on the ground, reducing Barham's expected yield on several fields by as much as 200 pounds.
Speaking prior to the storm, Barham was cautiously optimistic about his prospects. "Our cotton has gotten a little tall," he said. "But you can make it if you get an east wind in August when you turn the water off. Where you get in trouble is a year like last year, where you get a big rain in the latter part of August and you've got a big dense canopy."
If weather cooperates from here on out, Barham will harvest, scrap, then cut stalks. "Then in the areas where we need to break, we'll run a Paratill. We'll try to get it all rowed up."
Barham has become more selective with his tillage since the advent of Roundup Ready cotton varieties.
"We're finding that instead of plowing with cultivators in the spring, we have a High Cycle that's covering a lot of acres going across the field, and it's only hitting in a few middles and it stands to reason that we're not compacting it the way we were."
With compaction not such a chronic problem, "we've started running a penetrometer to find out what the soil is doing rather than going with a shotgun approach of cutting the stalks, breaking it up, disking and re-hipping," Barham said.
In January or February, Barham will burndown with Roundup and Salvo. If he has time in the spring, he'll burndown again with Roundup. "If we have a good spring, we might even go in and freshen the beds up. Otherwise, we're going to try to get as close as we can to that planting time with a bed that's in good condition and is clean. This is the first year that I haven't used a lot of the DNA herbicides."
Barham started planting cotton in mid-April and finished up around May 11, which is normal for his farm.
He did reduce his seeding rate across several farms this year, a decision which has some pros and cons. "If it's a plant that tries to get a little leggy on you when you try to space it out, it tends to load up a little better," he explained.
"The trouble is if you have any adversity during the critical emergence time, instead of getting a minimum of a seed per foot, you may be looking at a seed per 3 to 4 feet. Reducing the seeding rate is a calculated risk. It's worked for me a time or two. It may not work every time."
Barham uses an additional seed treatment for rhizoctonia and pythium diseases and applies Temik in-furrow for thrips. Seed is also treated with Gaucho.
Varieties planted this season were Stoneville ST 5599 BR, ST 4892BR, BXN 49 B and ST 4793 R (for his refuge).
The ST 5599 is a new, high-yielding, high-quality variety which, according to Stoneville, compares with DPL's new release, DP 555 BG/RR. The variety has an added bonus of tolerance for root-knot nematode, a pest that infests a few of Barham's fields. "The thing that I'm looking for in a variety is a little bit better lint quality and high yield," Barham said.
Wet weather was an unwelcome visitor early in the season, noted Barham, whose major weed problems are morningglory, smartweed and annual grasses.
"We try to get our two over-the-top Roundup applications out before the fifth true leaf, and then we go with a thrips application. We're juggling all that as we go. Hopefully, you work it out with the equipment and the manpower."
Because of wet weather, Barham was delayed three weeks in getting out his layby application. "I don't care what you have out there, weeds are going to come up. There were some places where it had gotten pretty rough.
"We were a little nervous about it, but at layby, we went with a broadcast application of Roundup and Direx under the cotton. We'll know how it worked when we pick it."
Barham's insect consultant picked up some plant bug activity this season, "but we're in the boll weevil eradication program and the malathion sprays helped us. We also had a few bollworms and a few armyworms next to the hills."
The season also produced another surprise pest in no-till cotton. "There was one field where you couldn't put your foot on the ground without stepping on a snail. They would climb up on the stalks and they would lay over. What we need to do next year is put out another burndown or put it out a little earlier so they don't have the vegetation to live on."
Barham defoliated his crop with Def/Folex and Prep. Prior to the late September assault by Isidore, ST 5599 BR yields were looking good, according to Barham, although he was concerned about the variety's storm resistance.
After Isidore's rains sloshed across his farm, he was facing a second year in a row in which harsh weather robbed him of potentially record-breaking yields. With another tropical storm brewing at the time of this writing, he knows the fight's not over yet.