Until a month ago, the Mid-South cotton harvest was going incredibly well. Yield reports were promising and pickers zipped across dry fields. Then, to producers' chagrin, rain clouds moved in and never left. Harvest went on hiatus.
Finally, after weeks of wet October weather, early November found forecasters predicting clear skies, producers again firing up pickers and Extension specialists assessing the damage wrought by weeks of rain.
The post-rain report from Delta states finds dampened, although still high, expectations from most.
It's been very wet in the Missouri Bootheel. Bobby Phipps, Extension cotton specialist, hopes the forecast holds for dry weather the second week of November. Phipps remains excited about the area's crop.
“Our crop is between half and two-thirds harvested. And what's been harvested has been fabulous. Yields here have been out of this world — a dream come true. I've heard of only one farm with less than a two-bale average. Even if the yields go down a bit now, they still should be good. Our cotton was simply beautiful. When we knocked the leaves off, the fields started to shine.”
Phipps believes the Bootheel will see a record yield on its 385,000 acres. The rise in trash content has him a bit concerned, though.
“Since the rains began, the trash content has changed tremendously. In our research plots, the grades have gone from a 21 or 31 to a 51. And we gathered the latest samples near the beginning of the rain.”
Phipps believes boll weevil eradication has played a large part in the good crop this year. “Now, we've got a top crop and bolls on branch ends that weevils used to get.”
Claiming to be “stunned” at how well varieties yielded in trials, Phipps says he hasn't topped four bales. “But I'm trying!” he says with a chuckle. “Out of 42 entries, the top yielder, Stoneville 3636 (produced in a Portageville field in continuous cotton for at least 44 years) hit 1,887 pounds. The lowest yielder hit 1,330 pounds. That's great no matter how you slice it.”
West Tennessee harvested about 40 percent of its cotton crop very quickly, but since, wet weather has slowed progress considerably, according to Tennessee Extension cotton specialist Chism Craig.
“As a rule, it's been wet. We pick a day and sit for four,” says Craig, who estimates that about 50 percent of the region's crop had been picked by early November.
“I haven't seen enough of the cotton that has come after the rain to really get a handle on what it's done to quality. Up until the rain, the quality was exceptional — good color, good micronaire, good strength and length. A lot was going into the loan above 52 cents.
“We still have a lot of producers who have a lot of cotton in the fields. When you get into November, there are not a lot of picking days. You want to get the bulk of your picking days in September and October.”
Regrowth has started to be a problem in west Tennessee, according to Craig. “We were dry before the rain. When we first got some rain, it was fairly cool, so we weren't seeing a lot of regrowth. But the last 10 days, we've had a lot of moisture and 80-degree temperatures, and we're starting to see a lot of regrowth.”
Tom Barber, Extension cotton specialist for Mississippi, says harvest in the Mississippi Hill section, which comprises about 25 percent of the state's cotton acreage, has slowed down considerably in recent weeks.
“It's been foggy and nasty and there have not been many picking hours during the day. We just haven't had enough picking hours during the day to get it out.”
Barber says around half of the Mississippi Hill area is harvested. “We need the weather to clear off and dry out, so we can get in there.”
Harvest in the Delta region of Mississippi is essentially complete in the south, but still dragging on in the north, according to Charles Ed Snipes, northwest district cotton specialist for Mississippi State University Extension Service.
“September and October were as good a harvesting season as I've seen. Yields have been good, but lately we've started to get a little rain, and the further north we go in the Delta, the further behind we are.
“The area north of Cleveland and Clarksdale still has a lot of harvesting, and producers are having trouble with regrowth because of all the rainfall. It's also been extremely warm for this time of the year.
“Yields will certainly exceed the five-year average,” says Snipes, “but I'm not sure we'll exceed the all-time record from last year.”
About 90 percent of Louisiana's 490,000 acres of cotton is out of the field, says Sandy Stewart, the state cotton specialist. “Hopefully, we'll be able to get some pickers in the field next week. That 10 percent that's left is all over the state. It's a slow go: at this time of year, harvest can go awfully slow with (poor) weather, fewer hours in the day and fields that don't dry fast.”
Cotton in Louisiana bolls is “pretty wet. We had from 4 inches to 8 inches — and some isolated spots higher than that — of rain around the state. That strung the cotton out. There's some decent cotton left, though. Our crop was generally later than the rest of the Mid-South. And we had a nice enough September that some of this late cotton would yield well if we can harvest it.”
Yields have been a pleasant surprise. Stewart is hearing yield reports anywhere from 700 to 900 pounds.
“I don't know how much those numbers might shift after these horrible rains. But, overall, we're pleasantly surprised at the crop. The main story is that because of the bad start we had, we don't have much of a bottom crop. We never have had, actually.
“From late August through September, the weather finally turned in our favor. Conditions were excellent. That helped our yields to be higher than we thought they'd be because we put a lot of cotton into the plant tops.”
Among things receiving credit for the higher-than-expected yield numbers is boll weevil eradication. “Eradication paid off this year more than ever before, allowing a top crop. We didn't have a lot of other pests hit late either.”
“It's been wet, wet, wet,” says Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. “The crop estimate has us at 63 percent done; I think we're around 70 percent. Through Oct. 11, we were running about 43 percent picked. From Oct. 11 through Nov. 1, we hit 65 percent. That's poor progress — we slowed to a crawl.”
Some of the rain damage in the state is variety dependent. “With some varieties we're seeing more cotton on the ground — not half or any high percentage — but there's definitely a difference. During the last hours before the rains hit three weeks ago, farmers were going after some of the less storm-proof varieties.
“In talking to farmers, though, there are still high hopes that yields will remain good. That's how good our crop was, and hopefully, still is. Some of our yields are so high, it's amazing. I've seen a lot of fields coming in over three bales. Two-and-a-half to three bales is common.”
Such optimism wasn't on display earlier this year. An extremely hot week during July had Robertson fretting. “Another week of that and we'd have shut the plants down,” he says. “But we escaped and managed to keep our heads above water until weather turned excellent in August. I'd never have dreamed we'd have the September we did. We set the top crop then without having to contend with weevils.”
If harvest season had remained dry, “I'm absolutely confident in saying our state average would've been over 1,000 pounds. USDA has us at 976 pounds now. That's still not a bad number.”