Nobody has reported seeing one in the fields, but few would be surprised if Mother Nature didn't include the kitchen sink in the weather she has thrown at west Tennessee and southeast Missouri cotton producers this spring.
After several seasons of unusually dry weather, farmers are having a difficult time adjusting to the almost weekly deluge of rain and severe thunderstorms and tornadoes that have swept the upper Mid-South since early March:
Even as Missouri Extension cotton specialist Bobby Phipps talked about the adverse effects of rainy weather on the progress of the Bootheel cotton crop, another round of thunderstorms were on the way. That's the way it's been almost every week of the planting season so far.
Emerged cotton has been flooded, hit with hail and besieged with seedling disease. About half of the Missouri crop had been planted by May 16, but about half of that will likely be replanted because of Rhizoctonia solani, which is thriving in the cool, wet conditions.
Last year at this time, Missouri cotton producers had planted virtually all their intended cotton acres. “We're way behind where we have been the last two years.”
Phipps says cotton producers who can't get planted until after the first of June “might be better off planting soybeans. The last two years, we had a real warm season, and last year, we had 400 more DD-60s than normal. We had the worst crop ever on June 1, and we came back with the second best ever. You can always end up with a terrific crop, so don't get too discouraged at this point.”
On the other hand, “we could have a cooler than average year,” he said.
One piece of good news is that thrips pressure has been reduced so far this year, noted Phipps, musing that the insects might have drowned in all the rain. “Maybe they didn't know how to swim, but I'm sure they're going to be out in force when it dries out.”
Rising costs are concerning many Bootheel growers, especially seed costs. About half of Missouri's cotton acreage is being planted to Bt cotton this year, compared to 5 percent to 10 percent in 2002.
“After we had so many tobacco budworms last year, we're going to more Bt, but the engineered seed is so expensive,” says Phipps. “Our growers are dropping their seeding rates.”
Planting delays have put the crop about 10 days behind at the time of this writing (mid-May).
“Growers should keep the thrips off and pamper the plant,” Phipps advises. “When Aug. 15 comes, pull the water off and force it to mature so they can harvest at a normal date. Don't count on any late cotton. If you get caught in a rain like the growers did south of us last fall, you pay the price.”
There are some inexpensive things producers can do to improve quality in their cotton crops, according to Phipps.
“Irrigate the crop to improve staple length, which in turn will help micronaire and yield.
“If you do a good job of defoliation, you can keep the trash out. If you use the Lewis method of defoliation timing, you can keep the mike down if it looks like it's going to be high.
“You name it.” These three words best describe the planting season in west Tennessee so far this spring.
“We've had a little bit of everything,” said Craig Massey, Extension area specialist with the University of Tennessee. “We're still trying to plant cotton, we have cotton coming up dying, cotton that has been washed over and crusted over due to the river overflow. We're replanting cotton, and we have some cotton that looks good and is getting sprayed for thrips.”
Fortunately, most of the intended cotton acres for west Tennessee were still in the bag when severe weather, including tornadoes, struck the region the first week of May.
One reason, “Many cotton producers backed off planting early this year because the later planted cotton last year had a better yield and a better grade,” Massey said.
The southern growing part of the state was about 45 percent planted by mid-May, compared to about 25 percent for the northern region.
The spread-out planting progress created situations where growers were spraying some Roundup Ready cotton and waiting on fields to dry up so they could plant cotton in others.
The recommended planting window for west Tennessee is April 20 to May 10, noted Chism Craig, University of Tennessee Extension cotton specialist. “We can make a good crop if we get planted by May 15 or May 20. We don't want to go much past that.”
If you are delayed and don't get cotton planted until the May 25 to June 1, “then you need to start thinking about real aggressive earliness management,” Craig added.