Joel Faircloth, an LSU AgCenter cotton specialist based in Winnsboro, said as harvest draws to a close, it looks as though this year's crop may break previous yield records.
Better yet, this year's record crop comes after early season conditions, which were too wet in Northeast Louisiana and too dry in the South Central region, gave all indications of a difficult year.
"The 10-year average lint yield is 660 pounds per acre, and the two highest yields on record are 828 pounds per acre in 1991 and 815 pounds per acre in 1994," Faircloth said. "With about 85 percent to 90 percent of the 2003 crop harvested, it looks like we may break the previous records.
"This comes after several years of reducing cotton acreage in Louisiana that can be attributed to difficult production seasons and low prices," Faircloth said. Just over 510,000 acres of cotton were planted in Louisiana this year.
"What we are experiencing in the fields right now just supports the resilient nature of cotton," he said. "Because of delayed plantings, the majority of Louisiana cotton has been behind in crop progress all year, but now we're right on time to finish in late October."
The cotton specialist said timely rains in most areas allowed for good in-season development of the crop.
"In early August, the rain completely stopped for several weeks – shutting down the crop in rapid fashion," Faircloth commented. "Enough rain followed, allowing for uppermost bolls to fill out, but not allowing for vegetative growth to resume."
The 2003 picking season also progressed rapidly, the LSU AgCenter expert said.
"There have been no hurricanes this year, and losses due to hardlock have been minimal," Faircloth said. "The weather has cooperated, giving Louisiana producers enough dry weather to harvest."
Cotton quality also is better this year, according to the expert.
"Minimal rainfall on exposed bolls has resulted in terrific overall color grades," Faircloth said. "Micronaire and staple, two sources of discount, are considerably better thus far at 4.74 and 34.46 – with 68 percent of the cotton classed. This is credited to a culmination of genetic improvements and environmental factors this year."
While environmental conditions certainly influence cotton quality in a particular year, a shift to varieties that contain better fiber quality genetics also contributed to the improvements, according to Faircloth. Several of these new varieties offer improved quality without sacrificing high-yielding capacity.
Current cotton prices also are in the favor of the producer, LSU AgCenter specialists point out.
Prices for December 2003 cotton futures have been in the neighborhood of 81 cents per pound. That's far better than the December 2002 price for cotton in Louisiana, which was 45 cents per pound, and the national average price then of 42 cents per pound, according to Kurt Guidry of the LSU AgCenter's Department of Agricultural Economics.
"At the 2003 price, government payments will be reduced and possibly be non-existent," Faircloth said. "However, as long as we stay in the territory of 81 cents and above, hopefully most Louisiana producers will be able to pay a few notes and have some money left over. It will also be nice to be paid at the marketplace for our product."
Much of the price rally appears to be stemming from recent purchases by China, Faircloth said.
The expert also advised cotton producers to look toward next year's crop while prices are up.
"If producers have the opportunity to book their 2004 crop, it may be wise," Faircloth said. "In addition, history tells us that cotton farming is a volatile business, and we should continue to encourage government officials to support policies that are amicable to cotton producers in the tough times."
Denise Coolman is a writer for the LSU AgCenter.