Cotton farmers anxious to finish picking crop

Arkansas cotton farmers like to get their crops out of fields as soon as possible in the fall, but that hasn't been possible this year. Rain slowed or brought the harvest to a halt for many farmers about mid-October, said Bill Robertson, cotton specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

“On Oct. 11, 43 percent of the crop had been harvested. That's about the time it started raining.” As of Nov 4, only about 65 percent of the crop had been picked.

Robertson said the Extension service likes for farmers to have the crop harvested by Nov. 1 to avoid fall rains, “but the rainfall came early this fall. Normally, by early November, we've harvested nearly the whole crop, or we can at least see light at the end of the tunnel. But a third of the crop was still in the field.”

The rain was hard at times. Robertson said some fields had cotton lint on the ground that was pulled out of the burr. The amount of loss depends on the variety. Some varieties, he said, are more “storm-proof than others,” and the cotton resists being pulled out of the burr.

Despite some loss, Robertson said, the Arkansas Agricultural Statistics Service predicts farmers will pick a statewide average of 976 pounds of lint per acre, which would shatter last year's record-breaking crop of 916 pounds.

“There's a tremendous crop out there. I still believe, even with rain, we'll beat last year's crop. At one point this year, I believe we had the potential to go over 1,000 pounds,” the Extension specialist said.

Robertson is concerned about the rain hurting fiber quality. “Before Oct. 28, 99 percent of the cotton was classed as having a color grade of white. We're seeing more light spotted and spotted cotton. The color is really dropping off. I expect to see fairly significant deterioration in color grade as we start to sample cotton still in the field.”

The rain has less effect on other measures of quality, including staple, or fiber length; fiber strength and micronaire, a measure of maturity.

Robertson said many farmers in 2003 were docked because of high micronaire levels. “Last year, at least 20 percent of the crop had micronaire discounts. It cost farmers a lot of money. This year, it's better because of cooler temperatures and timely rainfall in the summer. Micronaire discounts this year are running about 5 percent.”

When farmers resume harvest, they'll encounter muddy fields. Picking cotton in muddy fields is hard on equipment and farmers, said Robertson. Anything that can go wrong will be magnified when farmers have to drive in the mud. They'll stay busy repairing equipment, he said.

The heavy equipment will cause deep ruts, which will have to be smoothed out later for the next planting season. But farmers will cut ruts “knee deep to get the cotton out if they have to. They'll worry about ruts later on.”

Robertson said extended rainfall caused some cotton seed to become soft, and farmers may run into a problem with sprouting. Sun is needed, he said, to dry out the lint and help bleach stains out of the cotton.

Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.

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