Producing row crops in the hills of northeast Mississippi isn't an easy chore. Growers face the constant obstacles of erosion, soil fertility and field drainage. Irrigation is almost non-existent, and Mother Nature calls the shots.
However, as the 2004 season draws to a close, counties from Noxubee north to Tishomingo are harvesting a crop of solid yields.
Corn, cotton and soybean yields are expected to be average to slightly above, provided harvesting conditions are favorable.
Joe Camp, manager of the Agriliance distributorship in Baldwyn, Miss., and president of the Mississippi Agricultural Industry Council, says crops in his area are later than normal, but hold promise.
He says heavy rains in June and another round of flooding in late August brought rains up to 10 inches in some places. The last rains delayed corn and bean harvest, but may have helped the lagging cotton crop.
“We are just getting into soybean harvest around here. We plant mostly late Group 4s and 5s,” says Camp. “We are cutting the hill land beans first, and yields are 30 to 40 bushels an acre. This is one year when our hill beans may turn out better than the bottomland beans.
“I think we should be planting more early-maturing varieties — more Group 4s. Growers could get a wider planting window and an earlier harvest, which means a quicker and drier harvest and a quicker cash flow.”
The certified agronomist says many north Mississippi growers didn't book ahead to get better prices offered for August delivery.
“We just don't have the experience with the Group 4s to be able to insure we could harvest them for August delivery,” he says. “We were a little apprehensive to try that, which in hindsight was a good move this year. We have some soybeans with a long way to go, and we hope we can get them out before frost. Our bottomland crop is too skimpy. Weed control was hampered by wet conditions.”
Bert Falkner, a crop consultant from Aberdeen, Miss., with clients from Noxubee County to Prentiss County and west to Calhoun County, says harvest of Group 4 soybeans is almost complete in Noxubee and Lowndes counties.
“We are dryland, and yield reports are from 30 to about 50 bushels an acre. I heard of a few 60-bushel yields on the early beans, but that's not common,” says Falkner.
“Our late-planted beans had more stress. Early in the season we had a period of excessive rain, then a period when we really needed rain. We also faced more insect and disease pressure in the later-maturing, later-planted beans this year. Growers are just now cutting those, and I'm not sure what our yields will be.”
Charlie Stokes, area agronomist for Alcorn, Itawamba, Lee, Monroe, Prentiss and Tishomingo counties in Mississippi, says farmers in those counties cut about 50 percent of their Group 4 beans by Sept. 9.
“We have about 35 percent Group 4s and 65 percent Group 5s,” he says. “Yields seem to be holding in the 30- to 40-bushel range, which is an average yield for us. We've been on a slow upward trend with our soybean yields for the past few years.”
Stokes says more northeast Mississippi farmers are moving to Group 4s, but they are staying with the later-maturing 4.7, 4.8 and 4.9 varieties.
“We aren't going any earlier because many of our growers plant corn, too, and they just can't get everything planted. However, most of our growers plant in 30-inch rows, and they want something that will shade the middles. They are seeing that now with the Group 4s.”
Stokes says if growers learned anything from the heavy rains in June, it is that good field drainage is top priority. “Our growers still have some drainage problems to address, and that's one thing that will help the overall yields of our area. This year they had too much water in June and then not enough water in July and into early August. The areas with better drainage fared much better. If growers don't address drainage problems this fall, they are just shooting themselves in the foot.”
Corn harvest is well under way throughout northeast Mississippi, but many growers didn't plant all their planned acreage.
“We didn't get all our corn planted due to the rain. We wanted to plant more; we need to plant more for crop rotation,” says Camp. “We are still cutting our hill land corn, and it's turning out well.”
In Noxubee County, where almost 30,000 acres of corn were planted in 2003, Falkner says harvest is about complete with reported yields of 120 to 180 bushels an acre.
“When 120 to 130 bushels an acre is an average crop, I think growers there, for the most part, are pleased with their corn yields,” he says.
Falkner estimates the Monroe County corn crop was about 40 percent harvested by Sept. 9.
“Our corn yields are a little lower than last year, running about 120 to 140 bushels an acre, but again, 120 bushels is about an average crop for most Monroe County growers,” he says.
Roger Campbell grows about 1,600 acres of cotton in Lee, Prentiss and Itawamba counties. He hoped to begin defoliating some of his fields by Sept. 10 and to be picking by the last week of September.
“This crop faced some obstacles. We had heavy rains in June, which really hurt root development and the nitrogen uptake of the crop,” he says. “Then we had three record-setting low temperatures in August, which slowed the crop. I'm expecting about 600 to 700 pounds an acre.”
Campbell says, however, that will be an average yield: not the best he's ever made, but not the worst either.
“We are dryland cotton, and we have to really cross every t and dot every i up here to get a cotton crop,” he says. “Before boll weevil eradication, we considered 500 pounds an acre a good crop, but now we have a little longer to let the crop develop rather than losing it to boll weevils.”
Campbell says insects were light this year, but a significant amount of premature leaf shed across all varieties has everyone who's looked as his crop wondering what caused the leaf shed.
Camp, who works closely with Campbell on his input purchases and decisions, says across the northeastern region, the cotton crop is later than normal. He joins Falkner and Stokes in calling the cotton crop a “mixed bag” this year.
“We range from some pretty good cotton with a good yield potential to some fields we had to plow up,” says Camp. “This is a woolly crop. We had trouble getting in with timely herbicide applications, and we've got the weeds to prove it.
“We are concerned about the lateness of this crop. As of Sept. 8 we have not defoliated any cotton north of Baldwyn.”
Camp cautions growers “this is going to be a year when we must do a good job with defoliation. We must use the right product at the right time and at the right rate. It's going to be a field-by-field decision.”
Falkner agrees the lateness of the cotton crop is a real concern. “We should have been defoliating by Labor Day, and while some growers in Noxubee County and maybe the Big Creek area of Calhoun County are starting now, many fields are still several weeks away from defoliation.
“Most of our cotton took a lot of water in June, and then it went from wet to dry,” he says. “I'm calling this an average cotton crop, but it's really hard to predict until you get a picker in the field.”
The crop consultant is concerned about some fields where the bolls down low “aren't very good.”
“I think that might be a combination of genetics and environmental conditions. I'm concerned about how those fields will yield with hard-locked bolls, but that's only a few of the fields.”
Stokes says the damage to the root system of young cotton plants subsequently hurt nitrogen uptake.
“Growers applied nitrogen, but there wasn't a root system to pull it into the plants. As plants grew and got stronger, they pulled in nitrogen, but it developed later than normal.”
Stokes predicts cotton harvest in northeast Mississippi will be in full swing after Oct. 1.
“It's a mixed bag. A lot of the bottom crop is lacking,” he says. “However, I think we can pick 1.5 to 1.75 bales an acre, which is an average crop for this dryland cotton. The better areas that did not get the heavy June rains and where growers had adequate drainage on their fields could still produce some two-bale cotton — but I'm expecting overall for us to yield 600 to 650 pounds.
Stokes adds that diseases, specifically frogeye leaf spot, sudden death syndrome and charcoal rot, seemed to hit some cotton hard this year. “This was the worst year I've seen for charcoal rot, and there's nothing growers can do about it.”
Eva Ann Dorris is a freelance journalist from Pontotoc, Miss. Contact her at [email protected].