Many Mid-South cotton producers in the lower Delta have been pleasantly surprised at how much cotton they're picking this year, despite dry growing conditions during the season and the often sparse appearance of the crop.
By the end of the third week in October, a little over 90 percent of Mississippi and Louisiana cotton acres had been picked, compared to 70 percent for Arkansas. Missouri and Tennessee were about halfway through their intended harvest. Here's more:
Chris Main, Tennessee's new Extension cotton specialist, says how good west Tennessee cotton is picking depends a lot on which side of the road you're on. South of I-40, dry conditions prevailed during most of the growing season and that is reflected in lower yields. “North of I-40, yields are higher, around 2 bales an acre.”
Main says harvest is between 65 percent and 70 percent complete in the region and fiber quality is holding up well. The Agricultural Marketing Service reports that so far, about 70 percent of the west Tennessee cotton crop has a color grade of 31; micronaire, around 4.7; strength, around 30 grams per tex; uniformity around 82 percent; and staple length 34.7.
“As we get into some of our northern counties, mike will stay down and not approach that discount range. I think a lot of what we're seeing now with the higher mike is from the drought-stressed crop south of I-40.”
Prior to his new position, Main spent two years at Clemson University as an Extension weed specialist, after earning a PhD from the University of Tennessee. He was raised on a small family farm in southwest Ohio, about an hour east of Cincinnati. The farm produced grains, wheat, corn, soybeans and burley tobacco.
According to University of Tennessee Extension entomologist Scott Stewart, the year for insects in west Tennessee “was pretty weird. Generally, our plant bug and stink bug pressure was light to very light, even though there were a few hot spots along the river.
“Bollworm and budworm pressure varied a lot. In the northern counties of west Tennessee, cotton producers experienced extensive bollworm pressure on their Bollgard cotton. Some fields were sprayed three to five times, which is really unusual for us. Almost all the fields were sprayed twice, which is also unusual.”
South from there, bug pressure was more variable, according to Stewart. “But it would have been a lot worse in the southern half of the state if the area had not been drought-stricken and the worms never developed.”
Tobacco budworms were a problem in conventional/refuge cotton, according to Stewart. “I identified more of them this year than I ever have before. In June, we had some fields treated in the southern counties. We had a little bit of a blowup in subsequent generations, but there is so little non-Bt cotton out there. I got a lot of phone calls, but only about 2 percent to 3 percent of the acreage had that problem.”
Insect control costs will be higher this year, primarily because of the bollworm pressure. “It wasn't on all the acreage, but when you start spraying three times on Bollgard, costs are going to go up. It's not going to be a huge chunk, but I'm guessing around $10 more than our average.”
According to Tom Barber, Extension cotton specialist, Mississippi cotton yields are better than many expected. Harvest is nearly complete with USDA reporting over 90 percent gathered by Oct. 22.
Non-irrigated cotton ranged from half a bale to 700 pounds to 800 pounds. “Furrow-irrigated cotton has produced really well. It's been outstanding in most places, especially where growers turned on water early enough and ran it long enough. Pivot irrigated cotton is yielding a little less, but it's still picking some good cotton.”
USDA has pegged Mississippi cotton yield at 833 pounds per acres, which is up from the previous month's estimate of 793 pounds. “We may end up with yields close to the five-year average of 868 pounds.”
One reason for the good yields were relatively low nighttime temperatures, “which help us put fruit on the plant. While daytime temperatures were high, we got a lot of sun. There were not nearly as many cloudy days this year and that helped. Our crop produced quickly, even our fuller season varieties.”
With the hot, dry conditions, Barber was expecting a high mike, low staple crop. “We have the short staple. When we started picking, we were averaging in the 33s. But now, after 1.1 million bales have been classed at Dumas, our average has come up to a little, to over 34.
“Irrigation pumping costs are going to be our No. 1 cost this season. I've heard where some of our bigger growers spent $40,000 a month for three months. The price of cotton isn't that great, but we might get a little more for our quality. It's going to take 1,200 pounds for some of our irrigated growers to break even.”
Missouri lost some yield to heavy rainfall and flooding in the north end of Dunklin and Pemiscot counties, the south end of Stoddard County and in New Madrid County. The flooding, which occurred toward the end of September, “affected some of the quality, but we're not sure how it's affected yield in some of those areas,” said Mike Milam, Dunklin County Extension agent.
USDA dropped Missouri's estimated yield from 1,032 pounds per acre to 989 pounds, “so a lot of people still are going to do better that 2.5 bales.”
Milam says cotton harvest in the Bootheel region is about 60 percent to 65 percent harvested outside the flooded area. “One of the problems is that with the cool weather, some of the bolls still haven't opened yet and probably won't open.”
Louisiana cotton growers “have been pleasantly surprised by yields,” says Extension cotton specialist Sandy Stewart. “I think it's pretty much a sure thing that we're going to go over 900 pounds per acre.”
Color grades have been a bright spot “and we haven't had a lot of high mike cotton. The one puzzling part is our staple length. In most cases, they've been good enough to avoid discounts, but we haven't seen a lot of longer staple length. Overall, we've been able to avoid discounts.”
“Pumping costs for irrigation have been major for a lot of producers.” Still, cost of production has been variable, Stewart said. “We had a few areas that virtually didn't have to be sprayed for insects, but we had other areas 10 or 15 miles down the road that had significant pressure all year long.”
The farm bill is a big concern for Louisiana producers heading into the winter, Stewart says. “Most people have been pleased with cotton the last few years. I've heard more and more people talking about new varieties and production related-issues than I have in past years. I think that's some indication of stability in the cotton acres of Louisiana.”
The Arkansas cotton crop “is as mixed as I've ever seen it,” said University of Arkansas Extension agronomist Bill Robertson. Some growers around McGehee finished picking last week (Oct. 20). You go to northeast Arkansas and they've barely picked 500 acres of the 40,000 planted there.”
Some of the slow maturity of the crop in the northeast region has to do with 2,4-D drift which occurred earlier in the season. “It's a big question mark in our crop right now. There is still a lot of cotton left on the stalk.”
Outside of those areas, “our yields have been so much better than I ever thought they would be. We had some really high daytime temperatures, and we went through a long, dry spell, but we didn't have a long period of high nighttime temperatures and that has helped.”
Insect control costs have been a lot less than anticipated. “I know of a lot of people who spent 40 percent more on fuel than they planned and if it wasn't for this year being a light insect year, it would have really gotten them in trouble. So it's helped.”
According to USDA, current projected Arkansas yields would produce a crop of 2.6 million bales. “Last year we set a record on total number of bales at just a little over 2.2 million bales. So this would be an all-time high.”