Charlie Burmester says farmers in Alabama's Tennessee Valley knew going into harvest the 2007 cotton crop wouldn't be one of their better ones. What they didn't know was just how disappointing it could be.
Although 2007 offered cotton producers some glimmer of hope at times, most didn't know the extent of the havoc that had been wreaked on them until they began putting pickers in the field, said Burmester, Extension agronomist-cotton with Auburn University's Tennessee Valley Research and Extension Center.
“Nobody realized the magnitude of this until the last few weeks,” said Burmester. “We knew yields would be down, but not to this level. Some of our farmers may be in a state of shock now.”
According to USDA's October crop production estimate, Alabama had ginned 113,650 bales as of Oct. 15. That's down from 177,100 bales at the same time in 2006 and from 127,800 bales in 2005, which was also a drought year, but arguably not as bad as 2007.
USDA says Alabama's 2007 crop could drop to 400,000 bales, a 40 percent decrease from the 675,000 bales harvested in 2006. Part of the decline would be due to the shift of about 170,000 acres — much of it to corn — last spring. But 400,000 bales would be less than half the Alabama crop in 2003, 2004 or 2005.
“It's hard to believe how low you can go in yield,” said Burmester. “In one field in the Belle Mina area the farmer harvested an average of 292 pounds per acre. We've had several running around 300 pounds per acre.”
Some of the region's irrigated cotton has fared better, he said, “but it doesn't look like the normal two-bale yields we would expect from our irrigated fields. (Only about 10 percent of the Tennessee Valley's cotton acreage can be irrigated.)
If it wasn't for bad luck, the Tennessee Valley's cotton and corn producers might not have had any in 2007, says Larkin Martin, a producer from Courtland in Lawrence County, Ala.
“We had three once-in-a-100-year weather events in 2007,” she said. “We had the Easter freeze where the temperature dropped into the low 20s for three nights in a row. We had to replant about 60 percent of our corn a month later than we would have preferred.”
Late May and June were extremely dry. Drought Severity Index maps indicated the Tennessee Valley was at the epicenter of a moisture deficit area that seemed to begin in north Alabama and then spread to Georgia and other Southeast states in recent months.
“The corn crop was just devastated,” said Martin, whose Martin Farm operation grew more corn than cotton in 2007. “Our yields were less than half of what we would have considered to be normal.”
The Courtland-Lawrence County area received from 6 to 8 inches of rain in late June and early July — slightly more than in Decatur-Limestone County and areas further east. Some later-planted corn began filling out ears and the cotton seemed to get a boost.
“The cotton had time to recover, and it appeared we had good crop potential in late July,” said Martin. “Then, in August we had 100-degree-plus temperatures for 13 or 14 days in a row, and zero rainfall. We had one of the better fruit sets we've had, but, when the heat arrived in August, a lot of it felt off.”
“We've been on a real roller coaster ride this year,” said Bobby Greene, president and CEO of Servico Gin in Courtland. “We had good weather in the spring and good seedling emergence. But when we got to August and the high temperatures, we didn't have a reservoir of moisture.”
Tennessee Valley farmers are coming off their third year of drought, meaning that dry conditions such as those 100-year events that occurred in June and August take an even greater toll on crops. (The National Weather Service says the last three years are the driest in north Alabama since 1941.)
“This has been one of the driest years I've faced in my 21 years of farming,” said Brian Glenn, who owns Glenn Farms in Hillsboro with his brother, Don Glenn. “We've had two years of drought, but the rains that came in with the hurricanes helped us last year.”
Burmester said Tennessee Valley farmers' current round of woes actually started in 2006 when farmers finished harvesting their cotton early — due to drought — and planted a large amount of wheat.
“The early April freeze knocked out 75 percent of the wheat crop,” said Burmester. “From 70 to 75 percent of the corn had to be replanted. Fortunately, we had enough rain to get the replanted corn and the cotton up.”
USDA is predicting Alabama's cotton farmers will average 492 pounds of lint per acre in 2007, but Greene, former chairman of the National Cotton Council, believes that figure will be too high for growers in the Tennessee Valley.
“In Lawrence County, we're looking at 400 to 450 pounds of lint per acre,” he said. “Over in Limestone County, where it appears they received less rain than we did in Lawrence, the yields could be down to 350 pounds per acre.”
The heat and lack of rainfall in August appear to have also taken a toll on quality, says Burmester.
“The 100-degree-plus temperatures just fried some of the bolls that were developing during August,” he said. “The middle part of the plant seemed to dry up, and a lot of the bolls opened prematurely due to the heat.”
Appearances proved to be deceiving, said Burmester. “The outside rows may look good, but once you got into the field you could see a lot of small, hard-locked bolls. Most of those got knocked off when the picker went into the field. That's why we have such severely low yields.”
The bolls that did make it into the picker helped lower the overall staple and micronaire on the cotton. The USDA Classing Office recaps at the South Limestone Co-op Gin near Belle Mina showed a number of bales with 2.9 mike and 31 staple and low strength. Some of the readings were bringing discounts of 10 to 12 cents per pound.
Ginner assistant Don Green said South Limestone was hoping to gin 25,000 bales from the 2007 crop. In 2006, it ginned 30,369 bales. That was down from 54,963 bales in 2005, 54,275 in 2004 and 52,715 in 2003.
“We lost about 10,000 acres to corn this year, so we knew we would be down, but we didn't expect to have all the problems with the weather on top of that,” said Green.
In 2007, about half of the Tennessee Valley's irrigated acres went to corn. Tennessee Valley farmers would prefer to irrigate more, but the limestone rock that underlies much of the region makes drilling a well an iffy proposition. “You may drill into one of these limestone formations and come up with no water.”
Farmers are building more reservoirs or seeking funding for building water storage facilities in hopes of catching more water that can be pumped back on their fields.
Corn yields surprised farmers who made the switch to grain. “The corn looked so bad we thought we might see some zero yields,” Burmester noted. “But the July rains seemed to help fill out the small ears. Dryland corn yields averaged about 60 bushels.”
The surprising corn yields could have an impact on next year's cotton acreage, says Servico's Bobby Greene. “New crop cotton is trading around 70 cents, he noted. “But we could still lose more acres to corn next year. I would like to think 70-cent to 80-cent cotton would help stabilize our acreage, but I'm not sure.”
Martin says 2007 could prove to be the financial undoing of some growers. “This is the second year of low yields for many of us,” she noted. “If you don't have good crop insurance, it will be difficult to break even this year.”
Rising costs of inputs such as nitrogen, fuel and labor mean that growers typically need 750 pounds or more of lint per acre in the Tennessee Valley, she said.
“We're mostly dryland here. No-till has helped us cut costs, and we're surviving, but we cannot stand these yield levels and stay in business. Those that were fortunate enough to be able to obtain GRIP (Group Risk Insurance Program) policies the last two years have had a very helpful financial safety net. But those policies have not been available in all counties nor have they been well understood and promoted by the insurance companies.
“So relatively few growers have been able to take advantage of the good coverage they provide in years of widespread yield loss. Going forward we don't know what the losses we've experienced in these two years will do to the future availability or the premiums for those policies or to the more conventional types of insurance.”