India's traditional monsoon went missing for several long spells this season, and in the end, it may provide only 70 percent to 80 percent of traditional precipitation to the region. Perhaps, as U.S. farmers are starting to suspect, the lost rainfall has made its way to the Mid-South, where in late September, it continued to wear out its welcome in cotton fields from the Missouri Bootheel to Greenwood, Miss.
During a time of the year when all Mid-South crops are in need of warm, sunny weather, Mississippi rainfall totals for Sept. 1 to Sept. 19 included: 6.28 inches in Meridian, 6.87 inches in Tupelo, 8.1 inches in Greenwood and 2.91 inches in Natchez.
The U.S. drought monitor for Sept. 15 has not been this devoid of color in the Mid-South for years, although a band of mild dryness stretches across the middle of Louisiana and the southern tip of Mississippi.
Indeed so much rain has fallen on the Mid-South this season that many grain and fiber producers might have contemplated giving every inch back, just for the opportunity to control the application of water with irrigation pumps instead. It's not just been the Mid-South experiencing odd weather this year. On Sept. 21, the last full day of summer, a Laramie, Wyo., television station reported that a soft blanket of snow fell in the city.
The weather has taken a toll on early-planted cotton, according to Mid-South cotton specialists, and is slowing defoliation of the later planted crop. If the rain doesn't stop soon, quality of cotton will degrade and yields will suffer. There are already reports of seed sprouting in the bolls.
“This is hitting us where it hurts right now,” said Tom Barber, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist, on Sept. 21. “We could have done without this last 10 inches of rain. Our earliest cotton was our best cotton, but may not be our best cotton anymore. Some is sprouting in the bolls, it's strung out. We're starting to get hardlock on some positions.
“I don't think the early crop is as bad as it was with the hurricane last year, but in some areas it may be.”
Cotton planted after May 15, and real late cotton, planted between May 20 and the first week of June, “is starting to show some boll rot. We need some sunshine to help us with the boll rot and to dry things up a bit.”
At the time of this writing, the forecast was for the threat of rain for the remainder of September. Barber noted, “If this thing stalls out over the top of us like the last one did, it may put the nail in the coffin on the early crop.”
Growers were quickly applying defoliants on Sept. 20 and Sept. 21, two rare days of sunshine. “We just don't have that many days to put defoliants out,” Barber said. “It's a hard call to make right now. We need temperatures above 60 degrees to defoliate the crop, and it's going to be getting close to that in October when we start defoliating a lot of this late cotton.
“It's terribly frustrating when you have a crop out there getting exposed to this, and you can't do anything about it. It's not just cotton. A lot of soybeans are going to be hurting pretty bad, too.”
Barber says yield losses are certain. “If we keep getting rain, we could lose 30 percent of some of our earlier crop. And our earlier crop was really going to help us. It really looked good.”
Eddie Dunigan, a consultant in northeastern Arkansas, says fields are a mess. “We need two weeks of sunshine so we can get started. We can start defoliating our April cotton if it will ever get dry. We're setting on go. If we see a break in the weather for a few days, we'll defoliate some of it. But we also need to worry about hurricanes coming up. If a lot is defoliated and one comes through, you can get in a heap of trouble.”
“In Greenwood, it's rained for eight or nine days in a row,” said Mississippi Extension cotton specialist Darrin Dodds. “We're starting to get some boll rot in the bottom crop, and some farmers are starting to see seed sprouting in open bolls.”
Growers have been waiting to defoliate, but just haven't had the window to do it. “We just need this rain to get out of here. It's been the craziest year I've ever seen.”
The rain “hit us two times when we didn't need it,” Dodds said. “It got us early in May. We had the fifth wettest May since 1892 that pushed us into planting three weeks late. Then heavy rains came again on the back end of September.”
USDA projected excellent yields for Mid-South crops in its September crop report, which surveyed growers on conditions as of Sept. 1. “We had a great-looking crop,” Dodds said. “For the first two to three weeks of August, we were accumulating 20-25 heat units a day. We went to a cool spell where we went to 10 heat units a day for the next two or three weeks. Then the rain started.”
With a break in the weather, Mississippi cotton producers could still pick some good cotton this season, noted Dodds. “We'll see what the pickers say. If this rain gets out of here, we may still do pretty well.”
But progress has been slow. According to USDA, 1 percent of the Arkansas crop had been harvested by Sept. 20, compared a five-year average of 8 percent. In Louisiana and Mississippi, 9 percent and 2 percent, respectively, of the cotton crop had been harvested by that date, compared to 17 percent and 16 percent.