Sometimes it really doesn't pay to worry. Despite mid-season hand-wringing, the 2007 Louisiana cotton crop has turned out much better than was expected.
The turnaround “is pretty remarkable,” said Sandy Stewart, LSU AgCenter cotton specialist during an Oct. 30 production meeting at Dean Lee Research Station in Alexandria, La. “The latest USDA prediction is Louisiana's average yield will be around 990 pounds per acre. If that proves true, it would be an all-time state record, beating the previous record by 30 pounds, or so.
“I don't know if that estimated average will hold. But I don't think that number will be 30 pounds off, so we'll probably end up setting the record.”
And this year's quality is better than in previous years. Stewart reports fewer high-micronaire bales and over half the bales at 35, or longer, staple length.
Where did all the cotton come from? “For much of the season, we poor-mouthed the crop. There were honest concerns with significant fruiting gaps in many fields.”
The last several years much cotton has been made late-season. Stewart suspects the trend continues.
Unlike 2006, however, this August was very hot. “I charted the weather for the eight weeks in August and September. If you look at the average DD-60s accumulated in that time period, there were many in early August. That was during the 100-plus degree days and weren't what we'd call quality DD-60s.”
When temperatures rise above 95 degrees, cotton doesn't do as well with plants spending energy to stay cool instead of bulking up bolls.
“Nighttime temperatures play a factor in how good the quality of DD-60s are for cotton. So the daily low temperature average shows that during the first two weeks of September, we were accumulating very good quality DD-60s, helping bolls that bloomed the last half of August.”
It appears Louisiana's crop put a lot of weight into bolls at the tops of plants. “I don't think we necessarily made more bolls per plant, but the ones there bulked up. The top third of the plant was really helped very late and that explains, at least in part, why we're seeing such good yields.”
Stewart says more attention should be paid to the reduction of cotton acres “across the entire Belt. In 2007, there were 324,000 acres, plus change, of Louisiana cotton. The 680,000 acres in Mississippi is simply remarkable. I don't remember a time when Mississippi had less than 1 million acres of cotton.”
Percentage-wise, Louisiana dropped the largest number of cotton acres — down about 52 percent over 2006.
Will such numbers hold for next year? “As of yesterday morning, the price for December 2007 cotton was at 64.80 and December 2008 was at 75.80. It used to be that if we had 75-cent cotton for next year's crop, we would be jumping up and down.”
That kind of excitement isn't happening in the cotton industry currently. And it's obvious that with soybean and wheat prices, the potential for double-crop acres is tremendous and cotton acreage could shrink even further.
“Actually, the commodity board numbers are pretty strong up and down, right now. Farmers are really going to be pressed to do the math on what will cash-flow best for their operations.”
Referencing a slide with cotton acreage numbers super-imposed atop a picture of corn, Stewart says he used the image during last year's winter meetings. “This is what I showed when asked what cotton acres would do in 2007. Corn was obviously the major factor. This year, I'll probably put the cotton data on a picture of soybeans.
“Our cotton acres may hold or be down some. More than ever, it's a guessing game. Last year, at this time, all estimates were wrong. The only consistent thing that was correct was the idea that cotton acres would go down.”
This year, Louisiana Extension did intense on-farm tests around the state using 16 large-plot, replicated studies looking only at Roundup Ready Flex varieties.
“It's subject to change, but currently 2009 will be the last year for Bollgard cotton. We're transitioning into a Flex world when it comes to cotton varieties.
“Here's some data I analyzed just this morning. Seven replicated trials, on various soil types in scattered locations, are represented in these numbers.”
The varieties that stood out: ST 4554 B2RF (averaging 1,204 pounds of lint per acre), DP 117 B2RF (1,183 pounds of lint), Phytogen 485 WRF (1,121 pounds of lint), DP 143 B2RF (1,065 pounds of lint), and DP 164 B2RF (1,059 pounds of lint).
“One I want to mention is DP 117. This one will win some trials in the state, but there are some issues with it. It's such an early-season variety, it doesn't tend to tolerate stress — water, potash, any number of stresses — as well as other varieties. It can cut out early.
“That means placement of DP 117 is very important. I can't stress that enough. Under proper management, in the right irrigated fields, I'm confident this one is a winner. But in marginal or dryland conditions, I'm less confident.”
As for new varieties, an interesting one that “snuck up” is Dyn-Agro 2490 B2RF (980 pounds of lint). It did especially well in the Morehouse Parish replicated trial.
“I believe the variety is exclusive to Dyn-Agro. It didn't look very good in the field. I can't say it picked cleaner than any other variety. But it certainly weighed a lot. I haven't seen the fiber quality data on it yet.”
Stewart said several Croplan varieties, including CG 3220, also did well.
“There are other contenders. And you've probably heard of them since we tested them last year. I may add more to the list as we get ginning information.”
Stewart was asked which cotton varieties would be best to plant behind wheat — especially in light soils and heavy soils. “Cotton behind wheat is essentially late-planted cotton. I'd lean toward three varieties — Phytogen 485, ST 4554 and DP 117. Those are the better choices. In heavier soils, I'd go with 485 behind wheat. In other cases, particularly if irrigated, I'd go with 117 first with 4554 a close second.”