Mother Nature deals farmers bad hand

You don't have to look very far on Jimmy Hargett's farm to see the bad hand Mother Nature has dealt the Mid-South cotton crop this spring.

The edge of one of Hargett's fields is shielded from the north wind by a tree line. The cotton in that area is larger and healthier than cotton just a few feet away where the trees did not provide a barrier.

“Cold ground hurts cotton. Cold, damp ground hurts cotton worse. Cold, damp ground with a north wind is just about a no-no,” says Hargett, who farms several thousand acres in Crockett and Haywood counties around Alamo in west Tennessee.

While warmer temperatures reportedly have helped improve the Mid-South crop's prospects, the north wind and unseasonably cool temperatures in mid-May took their toll, cotton specialists say.

As a result, the Mid-South's cotton acreage is expected to fall 360,000 to 560,000 acres below USDA's earlier estimate of 4.02 million acres.

Nationwide, some analysts say, U.S. farmers could plant as few as 13.5 million acres (vs. earlier predictions of 14.8 million).

“I've had only one other crop start off this bad and that was 1967. It stayed cool during the year and we had frost in September. We made 250 pounds to the acre. This start is worse,” said Hargett, who replanted about 12 percent of his 5,000 acres of cotton this year.

Extension specialists say west Tennessee farmers lost 26,000 acres of cotton to bottomland flooding in Lauderdale, Lake and Tipton counties along the Mississippi River. Growers will probably try to plant soybeans.

“It's too late for replanting cotton,” said Craig Massey, University of Tennessee area Extension specialist, in a June 3 interview.

Massey estimates growers replanted 25 percent to 30 percent of cotton acreage in west Tennessee this spring. “In some of the southern tier counties, where growers started planting cold, wet bottomland in April, we replanted 30 to 50 percent.”

In March, USDA projected plantings for Tennessee at 580,000 acres. The final number could be closer to 500,000 acres because of this spring's environmental conditions, according to Massey.

Missouri's cotton acreage could drop from an estimated 405,000 acres to between 390,000 and 395,000 acres due to sand damage, cold weather, thrips and seedling disease.

“I'm guessing that we'll replant between 30,000 acres and 50,000 acres,” says Missouri Extension cotton specialist Bobby Phipps. “About 10,000 to 15,000 acres lost will go to soybeans.”

Because the Bootheel has such a short growing season, a better-than-average cotton yield at harvest is not likely even under optimum growing conditions, according to Phipps.

Phipps described the condition of the Bootheel cotton crop at the end of May as “very poor. You have to look hard to find a nice-looking field. We had the most replanting that we've had in years.”

Farther south, producers are looking at drought or flooding, depending on which side of the Arkansas-Louisiana line they farm.

“We've been hit hard with the drought,” says Randy Machovec, consultant with Pest Management Enterprises in Cheneyville, La. “We finally got some timely rains, but I'm not sure how far they'll go. It's certainly too late in some fields that are being replanted.”

Machovec said central Louisiana received two days of rain the last week of May — “our first two rainy days of the season.”

And it hasn't rained in Machovec's portion of central Louisiana since. “There are cracks in these fields that I can put my arm into up the shoulder. It's unbelievable, especially with all the rain further north.”

Machovec still sees fields with no stand. The state is in a horrible rain deficit, and the crops are going to be impacted negatively. Machovec sees yields being 25 or 30 percent off normal.

The big problem, besides being perilously close to being outside the planting window, is farmers are spot-planting into fields that are already eight- and nine-node cotton. That cotton is going to be tough to manage, especially with Roundup Ready varieties. “Unless a farmer has a hooded sprayer or a shielded sprayer, he's going to be behind the eight-ball,” says Machovec.

Because of the drought, farmers have had major troubles with thrips and are now running into aphids. Unlike Texas, Louisiana doesn't have a Section 18 on Furadan. “We've tried a couple of other old, standby products and didn't get anywhere,” Machovec said. “We've got failures reported, and we need that Furadan Section 18.”

In northern Louisiana, aphids are the predominant pests, although thrips plague some late-planted fields. It won't be long before farmers will be seeing tarnished plant bugs as well, says Ralph Bagwell, Extension entomologist with the LSU AgCenter.

“Up until the rains we got the last week of May, we had a few fields already being irrigated. If we hadn't had the last rains, we'd have been in real trouble. But since the rain fell, north Louisiana seems to be in better shape than much of Arkansas and further south,” says Bagwell.

Making a comment on cotton acreage in the state is still guesswork, says Louisiana Extension cotton specialist Sandy Stewart. “The highest estimate I've seen was from the USDA at 660,000 acres. The National Cotton Council had us around 600,000 acres recently. I suspect both those estimates are optimistic.

“With this late date, a portion of the acreage originally slotted for cotton is going to be planted in soybeans. What you can take to the bank is this: cotton acreage in the state is going to be a lot lower than anyone suspected a couple of months ago.”

In Arkansas, cotton has been hammered statewide by cold, wet conditions.

“We've got some seedling disease, some Rhizoctonia, some black root rot in southeast Arkansas and some other things. It's just too cold and wet,” says Don Plunkett, Arkansas Extension cotton verification program coordinator.

On top of the cold damage, farmers in the state are seeing many thrips. “We're telling farmers that if they've got an older, struggling crop, they need to keep the thrips off and give the plants a chance. We're not through seeing some of the older, besieged plants die. Some of the sicker, stressed cotton is going to bite the dust. The young crop planted in the last couple of weeks in May, should come up okay, though,” says Plunkett.

“At one time, I thought we'd have around 1 million acres of cotton, which was up from USDA's estimate of 970,000 acres,” said Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. “Now, I think we'll be closer to their estimate — around 960,000 acres.”

In driving around the state looking at fields (the week of June 3), Robertson says, it appears that the cotton crop is starting to come around. Plants are getting new growth and “it looks a whole lot better than it did a week ago.”

“Take out your calendar, tear the month of May out and throw it away. We lost the month of May,” said Mississippi Extension cotton specialist Will McCarty. “Farmers south of U.S. Highway 82 were extremely dry,” McCarty said. “Those north of Hwy. 82 were cold and wet. And I've had as many calls about hail damage in May as I usually get for the whole year.

“It's unusual. Cotton has not grown; the wind blew out of the east and north a lot, which is very harmful and very tough on young seedling cotton. Up until about May 20, cotton never had a chance to grow. The thrips jumped all over it. It's one of the most non-uniform starts I've ever seen,” McCarty said.

“Some friends of mine in the Natchez area were too wet to plant on one side of the farm, and the Mississippi River was coming up and flooding them out on the other side of the farm. We're losing a good bit of cotton in the Vicksburg and Natchez areas.”

Acreage “is anybody's guess,” said McCarty. “I'm having a hard time coming up with a figure. I see fields rowed up with nothing on them. And we're still planting (as of June 5). I think our acreage will fall somewhere between 1.1 million acres and 1.2 million acres. Some people say 1.1 million is optimistic.”

“Our acreage will likely be a bit off from the USDA planting intentions report of 1.4 million acres because some Mississippi growers are choosing soybeans and corn over cotton this year,” said Charles Snipes, Extension area agronomist and cotton specialist for the Delta region of Mississippi.

There are many questions for the crop to answer, says Arkansas' Robertson, and the margin for error is now non-existent. In a normal year, if farmers are a little late on the initial shot of fertilizer or irrigation, it won't hurt terribly. That isn't the case this year.

“If we put out too much nitrogen, it'll make a late crop even later and hit farmers' pocketbooks. There just won't be any extra time at the end of the season to make up for an early-season misstep. Management decisions are absolutely critical now. I think with precise, proper management, much of the losses we're looking at can be made up. But everyone must be on their toes,” says Robertson.

Growers will have to manage this cotton crop very closely, according to the University of Tennessee's Massey. “It's been under so much stress and stands are going to be thinner. It's going to try and go vegetative, so we're going to have to manage Pix applications for earliness. We have to make it fruit just as early as we can.

“We can't handle much plant bug or worm damage,” Massey added. “We're also expecting a big stinkbug population. We're still not sure how we're going to manage it because we don't have a tight enough threshold to trigger sprays.”

On top of the weather and insect problems, west Tennessee growers also are encountering higher-than-expected levels of glyphosate resistance in horseweed this spring. “Our post-direct sprays are going to be a challenge because the cotton stem is a little tender, and we have weeds coming on faster than the cotton.”

Massey noted that a small percentage of cotton “looks healthy on top, and it's coming back some. But Rhizoctonia is just now starting to appear. We've had a lot of calls on that in Crockett County.”

In other parts of Cotton Belt:

Texas farmers are planting the 5.7 million to 5.8 million acres USDA was forecasting earlier. But substantial acreage in south Texas is being lost to dry weather and yields in the Corpus Christi area could already be down 25 percent from last year.

“Some acreage close to Robstown has also been lost to dry weather,” says Carl Anderson, Extension marketing specialist with Texas A&M University. “Thus, without timely rain during the next two or three weeks, Texas will have 1 million or more acres abandoned, and it could approach the 1.75 million acres abandoned in Texas last year.”

On the High Plains, farmers have planted about 80 percent of their intentions, but some of those acres will have to be replanted due to hail damage.

“Most of the dryland is still waiting for a rain,” said the Plains Cotton Growers' Shawn Wade. “A good bit of the irrigated cotton is up to a stand, but in various stages of progress. Cool conditions and some rains have combined to slow growth.”

In California and Arizona, growers are almost afraid to talk about their crop for fear they will be like the emerging sports stars that appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated and are never heard from again.

“You don't want to say too much good because you are afraid you'll jinx it,” said Steve Husman, University of Arizona field crops agent for Pinal and Pima counties, in the heart of central Arizona's cotton country.

“We are off to a pretty good start,” said California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association president Earl Williams.

Heat units could be higher for San Joaquin Valley Pima producers; not all stands are adequate, and there are spotty reports of early, heavy insect pressures, said Williams.

“However, we did not have much replanting. Heavy thunderstorms and hail moved to the valley in mid-May, but we have had no reports of damage to cotton,” said Williams.

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