Driving through the Delta, there are many more round bales in yellow raincoats than in recent memory. Bill Robertson says there could have been even more.
“We’re making pretty good progress getting cotton out of the field,” says the University of Arkansas cotton specialist. “We picked our last tests in the field yesterday (Oct. 25). NASS has the state at about 85 percent picked, overall.”
Unfortunately, all in all, the cotton isn’t picking as well as Robertson had hoped. “Some of our better cotton is picking three bales but there isn’t much approaching four bales. Three bales is kind of the high mark for this year.
“And I’m hearing way, way too many people talking about picking 1,000 to 1,100 pounds and some less than that. We had a rough start at the beginning of the season, very slow at the starting line.”
Once the crop reached June, “the plants tended to grow off and the crop looked a lot better. But when August arrived, the crop looked great until the rainy, cloudy weather that persisted from around August 13 to August 22 did its thing.”
When that spell of clouds came in, “the plants were absolutely loaded. I thought ‘this is going to be an amazing harvest; the fruit retention potential here is crazy high.’ We had a crop and were taking care of business.
“Think of it like the crop having a gas gauge and the needle was barely above empty. The plants were barely making enough energy to keep from heading into shed. When the extended cloudy days arrived, the plants weren’t able to make any more fuel and, boom, the tank was filled with nothing but fumes.”
Robertson believes fields that “were ranker or taller and more heavily fruited were hurt the most. A lot of times when a cotton plant begins to shed as a result of significant carbon stress like we had this year, it can get ugly quick. The plant will do what it must to relieve stress. Once that begins, it’s like the plants don’t know when to quit.”
At the end of July and starting August, “the crop looked great. I thought we’d set a new statewide record yield. That just evaporated.”
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At the end of the year, some of the fields looked good on the ground. But eyes are easily deceived. “Walk across the turn-row and the cotton was pretty and very white. But when I sat in cabs and rolled through with farmers picking, there was way too much brown in there. The yields bear that out.”
Fields that looked close to three bales turned out to be 1,100- or 1,200-pound cotton. “It didn’t look like the same field from the cab of the pickers. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that. I suspect that nematodes are a bigger part of the puzzle regarding the final status of this year’s crop.”
What about disease? Was target spot a factor?
“The jury is still out on the role of target spot. We’re still evaluating some studies where fungicides were applied.
“Here’s the thing: I’ve visited with a good number of farmers who say ‘Bill, where I had target spot that opened the canopy up a bit, the cotton picked better. It did better there than in areas where the canopy wasn’t affected by target spot because boll rot was worse in the end. The boll rot is what really got into my pocket.’”
Researchers in Georgia, says Robertson, “have said when target spot comes in late, a lot of times it can actually be beneficial. But in some of the fields we were pushing hard – big, tall plants pushed with nitrogen and water with a big boll load – is where the crop took it on the chin the hardest.
“Our soils in Arkansas are a lot different than those in Georgia with respect to internal drainage which impacts our depth of rooting. These factors may set us apart from what they see in Georgia. There are still lots of questions we need to answer.”
Asked about the 2016 cotton acreage increase and expectations for 2017, Robertson says “We knew acreage would bump up this year and they ended up higher than what I thought they’d be. This year, when cotton was looking good -- and next year corn wasn’t very attractive at $3.50 – and if we’d come in with a lot of 1,400- or 1,500-pound cotton, we could have seen close to 500,000 acres in 2017.
“Of course, that’s all speculation because the high yields didn’t show up. At this point, I think cotton acres will see a bump again next year. But there won’t be a 20 percent jump – maybe a 10 percent, or so. That’s just a gut feeling, of course.
“Regardless, I can’t help but believe the ginning sector is pleased with higher acreage. In 2015, some gins closed and they reopened this year. Hopefully, this run of higher acreage will provide an opportunity to grow their ginning businesses back. Things have been so tough for everyone in recent years.”
What about variety tests and dicamba cotton?
“We’re analyzing variety test data. Some varieties are consistently outperforming others.
“Some of the newer varieties coming up look promising, as well. I’m anxious to get the data pulled together.”
The Extend Flex cotton was first grown in the state in 2016. “Some of those varieties that did well last year are doing well again. That’s encouraging because the two growing seasons have been quite different in many regards.
“Last year, was the first time we looked at ‘dicamba cotton’ and the yield potential looked really good. That was just one year, though, and didn’t answer the question of ‘is this real or just a one-year fluke?’ But the varieties, as a whole, looked very good and were at the top of our testing. And we’re seeing many varieties do the same again this year.
“We’re getting a better handle on how to manage all the varieties. Every variety and technology has strengths and weaknesses. So, we’re learning more about the system and varieties.”