Before Hurricane Rita rolled through Arkansas with her buckets, optimists predicted plenty of three-bale cotton. Post-storm, with cotton wet, strung out and often on the ground, optimism has been dampened.
A day before Rita-spawned storms hit, Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist, said recent hot weather caused the state's cotton crop to mature very quickly. Producers were “moving through their fields trying to get every bit possible before the rain.”
Robertson estimated only a third of southwest Arkansas' cotton had been picked. The remaining two-thirds “are ready for harvest. Essentially all of it is defoliated there so it's vulnerable to bad weather.”
Despite being down on the crop a few weeks ago, “I'm hearing some really good yields. The first bolls that were opening were fluffing out but seemed awfully small. At one time, I didn't think we'd bust 900 pounds.”
However, as the rest of the bolls opened, “many fields fluffed out to the tops. Now, I'm hearing of a lot of 1,100-pound, 1,200-pound and even 1,300-pound cotton.
“We have our share of 900-pound fields. But we've got a lot of 1,300-pound fields — bunches of them. If we could pick all the cotton open on the stalk currently, we'd have a 1,000-pound average. The cotton is picking fantastic. We're getting most everything off the stalk.
“I was in a field several days ago that, when ginned, came in at 1,495 pounds. We've got a number of three-bale fields in southeast, central and, incredibly, in northeast Arkansas too. The problem is most of it is still out in the field with this storm heading towards us.”
Currently, southeast Arkansas is only a quarter picked. Probably 50 to 60 percent is ready for a picker.
In the northeast — “say Mississippi and Clay counties” — pickers only began running in earnest the week of Sept. 19. The area is only 5 percent to 10 percent picked with 30 percent of the acres ready for harvest. From what he's seen, Robertson estimates 60 percent has been defoliated.
“Farmers are holding their breath. They've got more than enough acres in front of their picker, right now. They can't get all those acres before the hurricane gets here. Many of them haven't defoliated because cotton is more weatherproof with the leaves on.
“In fact, I've got some cotton that needs to be defoliated. The heat units on it are ample. I chose to leave the leaves on. I'll go to Plan B after this rainy weather moves through.”
Two days later, Rita was gone and the damage assessment had begun. The National Weather Service reported some cotton-producing counties in the state received 4 to 6inches of rainfall. In several counties, wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph were reported.
“I've talked to a number of folks,” Robertson said Sept. 26. “Carl Hayden (Chicot County Extension agent) in southeast Arkansas said they had 5 to 6 inches of rain with some heavy wind. But as dry as it was and low as the bayous were running, he wasn't aware of any flooding. The low ends of fields have some water standing but no flooding. He figures there's 150 to 200 pounds of cotton (per acre) is on the ground. So we did lose some yield.”
Cotton losses lessen as one travels north. In Desha County, Robertson said, 4.5 inches of rain fell and about 150 pounds of cotton (per acre) is on the ground.
In the Forrest City area, “I spoke with a farmer and consultant. They got a little over 3 inches of rain and figure there's a little less than 100 pounds of cotton on the ground.
“Around Marion/West Memphis, a farmer said he got 4 inches. Around Jonesboro, farmers tell me they got a couple of inches of rain with less than 50 pounds of cotton on the ground. That seems pretty common north of I-40.”
Calculating losses isn't difficult. One boll of cotton on the ground per foot of row is equal to 35 to 50 pounds of cotton per acre.
When will the bulk of producers return to harvesting?
“I don't think we're going to have temperatures in the 90s anymore. The way it looks now, it'll probably be this weekend before we're back in the field in the central part of the state. I hope there aren't any more surprises. I know everyone is tired and ready to get the season over with.”