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Alabama cotton growers struggle through drought

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” It’s a maxim that certainly applies to Alabama farmers, particularly cotton producers, this year.

Speakers at the 29th annual East Central Alabama Crops Tour reflected more than once on this sober truth.

“This has been a different kind of year,” says Jeff Clary, an Extension crops consultant, who, along with Regional Extension Agent Leonard Kuykendall, organizes the annual crops tour, which focuses primarily on cotton and peanuts.

“We think when we’ve got it all figured out — all the special stuff to make three bales — we have a year like this.”

And what a year it has been. Putting the 2007 growing season into grim perspective, Dale Monks, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System cotton agronomist, prefaced his remarks by describing last year’s “record-setting drought” as one “eclipsed only by this year’s record-setting drought.”

Monks believes the only part of the state that will get away with a decent cotton crop is southwest Alabama, where “irrigated cotton and corn look good.”

There are bright spots even in parts of states severely affected by the drought, particularly in cases where irrigated cotton is grown. But even this cotton is reeling from the effects of the intense August heat. This was especially the case with some irrigated cotton Monks inspected a couple of days earlier in Talladega County.

“Even though they’ve got a lot of vegetation on it and it’s ultimately going to be a good crop, it just can’t overcome this temperature,” Monks says.

After two or more weeks of 100-plus temperatures, more and more cotton plants have begun shedding squares.

“These little squares and flowers are dying before they have a chance to set,” Monks says. “We’re seeing a lot of thumb-sized bolls, and once they get this size, they’re generally stuck.”

In fact, for the most part, the cotton crop has run out of time to bloom and make bolls, he says.

Under current conditions, the time it would take for cotton to mature from a pinhead square to a bloom is 3 weeks, and by that time, producers will be in the second week of September.

“That’s just too late,” Monks says.

Monks says the intense temperature and heat also are likely to produce an early crop.

“The cotton goes from just cracking open to between 60 and 80 percent open in a few days,” he says.

It normally takes two or three weeks for a whole plant to open up, but in this case, it’s occurring in less than a week because of the high temperatures and intense heat, Monks says. Researchers at E.V. Smith Research Center near Montgomery have encountered problems with timing their defoliant spraying because bolls are cracking open so early, he says.

Meanwhile, Robert Goodman, an Alabama Extension economist says growers will need “some tremendous, heroic disaster assistance this winter.”

“If you look at this drought map, it’s Alabama — that’s where the drought principally is occurring, except for Georgia, which benefits from irrigation,” Goodman says.

Goodman also advised farmers who are worried about next year and have lots of money invested in inputs such as fertilizer to consider planting a winter crop this fall, adding that wheat would be an especially good bet.

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