The latest National Agricultural Statistics Service planting intentions report says cotton acres will be up 21 percent at 12.2 million acres. What does the expected resurgence of cotton mean for the Mid-South?
In Arkansas, the uptick in cotton acres is pronounced -- from 380,000 acres to 500,000.
“I think 500,000 acres may be a little high for our current situation,” says Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. “With the way commodity prices are currently and if picker capacity wasn’t an issue, I think we’d have more than 500,000 acres. But a lot of people are planting to their picker capacity.”
Look at what’s happened in the last two years during harvest, says Robertson. “We’ve had some really nice, dry falls. Think about it: once we put the pickers in the field there have been few times we’ve had to stop because of weather.
“Last fall, it was wild. Some early fields opened up and we had the pickers running for about a week. Then, they had to stop because they ran out of cotton that was open. That was about the biggest delay we had.
“The last two years, we’ve added more and more acres to our pickers. I hope we do have 500,000 acres but I’m concerned we may have the pickers stretched a bit thin. If we have another nice, dry fall we’ll be okay. But, of course, we don’t always have a nice, dry fall and we have to rut the crop out.”
The NASS report says Louisiana will see cotton acres go from 140,000 to 190,000.
“They’re pretty close,” says Dan Fromme, LSU AgCenter cotton specialist. “I anticipate 180,000 – maybe a bit less. But 190,000 is still a fair assumption. With commodity prices what they are, we’re hoping for great yields again to offset lower returns.
“It isn’t much, but we actually have some cotton that’s already up since the last couple days of March. Normally, we don’t even start planting until the first part of April so that tells you how warm it’s been.”
The first weekend in April, “some of the state got 7 to 9 inches of rain. More got 4 to 5 inches. Regardless, we’ll be out of the field this week. Next week, if the weather holds, the planting will bust loose.”
Corn in Louisiana, “has gotten off to a fantastic start,” says Fromme. “They may have started before then, but the last week of February, growers got into the full-plant gear. We weren’t delayed and everything was planted by the third week of March.
“Those latest storms means some of the corn is sitting in water but it should be fine. We also got some hail but, as a whole, it didn’t have much size and we’re okay.
“There haven’t been any problems yet – but cotton is just peeking out. We did have a light winter and lots of folks equate that to having higher insect pressure. We’ll keep an eye on how the plant bugs and bollworm pressure is around bloom-time.”
Tennessee, according to NASS, will go from planting 255,000 acres to 300,000.
“From the conversations I’ve had over the winter meetings, I believe their number is a little low,” says Tyson Raper, UT Extension cotton specialist. “There are several growers who’ve not been in cotton the past couple of years, or even longer, coming back to cotton in 2017. I’m wondering why the (NASS estimate) in Tennessee wasn’t even greater.
“An increase has been coming and isn’t a surprise. We had phenomenal yields in 2015 and 2016. The fiber quality, yield potential, and yield stability of the new varieties are exceptional and we’ve had a couple of great growing seasons of weather to support nice cotton crops.”
Most of the acreage expansion will be in the western side of Tennessee. “There’s also a big pocket of cotton in south-central Tennessee that strays down through the Tennessee Valley that’ll get a bump.”
The NASS report says Mississippi will move from 435,000 acres to 550,000. Darrin Dodds, the state’s Extension cotton specialist, says that number is likely well shy of what will be planted. “I’m reluctant to go against the NASS numbers but I think we’ll have 700,000 to 750,000 cotton acres. Guys who’re going down in cotton acres are doing it because that’s how their rotation has worked out.
“All the seed guys I’m talking to, the bags they’re moving, the market share they’ve got, points to that big a jump. To a man, they’ve all said that. The popular varieties seed have been tight for probably two months.”
Missouri producers are moving from 280,000 acres to 285,000.
In Tennessee, Raper says “picker capacity will be a limiting factor. Well, planting weather will also play a large role, of course. Every year, our cotton acreage can twist and turn very quickly according to what the weather does. If we have good weather for planting, I suspect we’ll be well above 300,000 acres.
“It’s still a bit chilly here to plant. About two weeks ago, we had several very cold nights that impacted our wheat. There’s also a frost forecast for the next few days with a cold front moving in.
“So, we’re still looking at April 20 as the start of our planting window. The soil is just too cool, right now.”
What about other crops?
“A few corn acres have been planted,” says Raper. “Again, though, with the cold front moving through and most growers are finishing up their burndowns. It’s been a pretty wet late March/early April. We’ve got a few days to get things set up for the planters. We’ll see larger acres of corn going in (the second week of April).”
Robertson says there’s been some cotton already planted in Mississippi County. “Some folks are willing to go ahead and plant, roll the dice. I’d just caution folks about going too early due to, once again, scarcity of top seed. If you don’t do a good job the first time, that seed probably won’t be available for the second.
“I see a lot of people get the cotton planter out early and I understand that. But we may get cotton going, soybeans going, corn going and get behind on pigweed control. If you plant when the cotton can spring out of the ground, it makes weed control so much easier.
“As a cancer survivor I think sometimes we treat crops almost like chemo. They wanted to kill the cancer but it almost killed me. Well, sometimes that’s what we do with our cotton – almost kill it in order to control the pigweed. That may clean the crop up but has a tremendous impact on yield potential.”
Dodds says some Mississippi producers have already begun planting. “They’re calling for 85 degree days and 60 degree nights so planters are rolling. I’m a little nervous about that, though, and am keeping seed in the bag until after Easter.”
Fromme says the loss of cotton infrastructure over the last decade is “a concern. To put it in historical perspective, in 2007 we had 54 gins. Now, we have 18 gins. The gins we have should be able to handle the acreage increase at 190,000. But everyone knows if we ever go back to the days of 700,000 to 800,000 acres – and that wasn’t too long ago – finding a home for your cotton could be a crazy scramble.
“I’m hearing growers are looking to line up custom harvesters. We’re also seeing more of the round-bale pickers which can handle more acres.”
As an indicator of cotton’s rebound, Dodds says a gin in the Mississippi hills, “ginned over 95,000 bales this year. They did that on two gin stands and are presently installing another stand. They’re expecting to gin 120,000-plus bales next year. Now, they’re pulling from a lot of places, including Alabama. But if a few years ago, you said a gin in the hills would be ginning 95,000 bales that would have seemed crazy.
“Farmers are lining up custom harvesters as much as possible but those services are going to be very tight. Most folks with pickers are going up in acreage so much they’re not going to have a lot of extra time to custom harvest.
“If you look at the state over the last five years, we’ve averaged over 1,000 pounds. Three of those years, we averaged over 1,200 pounds – the best run of crops we’ve ever had. It’s been awesome. My concern this year is we’ll expand acreage into some land that cotton ought not be on or run into some unfavorable weather. It wouldn’t be good if folks have really high expectations that aren’t met.”
Raper believes the gins running in Tennessee “can handle (the expected acreage increase). They’ve been running below capacity for several years. I don’t think there will be any issues with the ginning infrastructure at the projected acreages.
“The limiting factors will be harvesting equipment. But my understanding is most producers are aware of that and have already made plans to either purchase a picker or lease one before fall.”
Robertson is on the same page. “Last year, we had some really good rebates offered. I haven’t heard as much about the rebate program this year.
“There are gins available but they may not be as close, may not be a first choice. It’s the same with cottonseed – right now, if you’re shopping for your first or second choice those are gone. So, we’re just doing our best.
“Some growers don’t even have pickers anymore and will be relying on custom harvesters. It could be a very interesting fall. Hopefully, things operate like clockwork.”
What about dicamba cotton?
“I think we’ll be 60 to 70 percent dicamba cotton, this year,” says Dodds.
Tennessee will see an even higher percentage, says Raper. “We’ll be heavy dicamba cotton here – I’ve heard estimates anywhere from 70 to 90 percent. The market will dominated by Xtend Flex. We’ve also seen some of the Enlist Duo varieties along with the Roundup Flex.
“Growers are excited to be able to make the labeled application on the auxin-tolerant crops. I think that’s another factor for this nice uptick in cotton acres.
“Keep stewardship in mind with these auxin-tolerant crops. We need to protect the value of the trait and make sure we’re incorporating residuals. If we have a failure, we need to address it as quickly as possible.”
Some Arkansas farmers “are going 100 percent Xtend Flex,” says Robertson. “Others are planting a mix. Some are going with Enlist cotton. Overall, we may be at 80 percent dicamba (tolerant) cotton. That’s not that big a surprise because last year we were around 60 percent.”