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Cool cotton yields

A cool August made a lot of cotton for many northeast Arkansas producers this year. Now they need a dry September and October to reap its benefits.

"I hate to get too pumped up, because something bad could happen," said crop consultant Dale Wells, when asked how his clients' cotton crops were doing. "But the crops look good. We have a good boll load. There are not a lot of deformed bolls."

Strange how four months ago, many growers and consultants were desperate about crop prospects. "We had a lot of sand blowing and cold weather that came through in May," Wells said. "It was a horrible start and we were behind most of the year according to our plant mapping."

But the weather finally warmed up and as the crop neared bloom "the cotton really started looking good."

Basically, warm days and sufficient rainfall in June and July helped the crop recover from a disastrous May. But it was August that made the crop, according to Wells.

"According to our weather station, we've had the coolest August since 1992. Some of (University of Arkansas cotton physiologist) Derrick Oosterhuis' work comparing temperatures in August to yield shows that when the average high temperature is lower, the yield goes up."

The next step for Wells and his growers is to turn potential into pounds. "We're defoliated a few dryland fields and next week (Sept. 9), we should be pretty heavy into it."

The only downside for Wells is that the cotton crop of 2002 will have been much more expensive to produce.

"We had to spray for plant bugs one or two times. We had a bollworm flight that came through in July. They laid down lower in the plant and in the blooms and we had to spray the Bt cotton.

"In August, we had a massive influx of tobacco budworm. We have never had tobacco budworm before. It was a new critter for us. We were used to spraying with a pyrethroid and had to go from a $4 treatment to a $17 per acre treatment with Tracer.

"We were fortunate that we only had 20 percent of the crop (refuge cotton) we had to worry with. But that 20 percent was much more expensive."

Luckily, Wells and his growers went with more Bt cotton in 2002. For some, the move was a good insurance policy against worm outbreaks sometimes associated with boll weevil eradication. The northeast Arkansas delta region where Wells' clients farm has yet to approve eradication. In 2002, the region was completely surrounded by active programs.

It was a good move. Wells noted that the movement of tobacco budworms was from north to south, instead of the usual south to north, indicating that something other than natural migration was at work.

One of Wells' clients, Manila, Ark., cotton producer David Wildy, also sprayed for tobacco budworms in his refuge cotton. But he regularly plants a high percentage of Bt cotton for another reason.

"As we've gone to Roundup Ready varieties, we've seen superior yields with Bt cotton. So we've been planting Bt cotton — not because of worm pressures, but because we thought it was better variety and we could pay the technology fee and still come out ahead. So we got lucky because we had 80 percent Bt cotton."

Wildy was cautiously optimistic about his cotton crop as of early September. "We think we have a good crop, but it can fool you sometimes. We just have to wait and see."

Wildy noted that the start of the crop "was touch and go because of the cold weather and there were a lot of sleepless nights. But we did not have to replant any cotton. It looked bad for a while. But it recovered and came on real strong. The cooler August helped, too."

Wildy farms in an area subject to sand and wind blowing in the spring. The producer and other growers in the Buffalo Island area have addressed the problem by planting wheat in the middles. In addition, Wildy went to a sizable percentage of no-till acreage this year because a wet spring kept him out of the fields.

"The no-till didn't blow either," Wildy said. "So we're going to expand our no-till next year and continue to sow wheat in the middles."

As of early September, Wildy had started defoliating a few dryland fields. "If it stays this hot and dry, we will probably start to defoliate a little bit of irrigated cotton. We're a little bit later this year. That cold weather set us back 10 days to two weeks. Last year, we were picking on Sept. 5."

A 270-acre cotton field farmed by cotton producers Steve Cobb and Darin Owens, near Bay, Ark., made a surprising turnaround this season. The producers farm about 1,600 acres of cotton.

"We planted on May 3 and had a stand by May 10," said the growers' consultant, David Hydrick. At emergence, the crop looked good, but around May 20, the wind and cool weather struck with a vengeance. Hardly any leaves were left on the plant, according to Hydrick. "It looked like a matchstick. It was very depressing."

"I had decided we were going to replant on a Monday morning," said Cobb . "In fact, we brought the seed and equipment to the field to start. But the sun was shining that morning and I could see a little bit of a green tint to the field."

The grower and consultant decided to take a chance and not replant. Today, the field is one of the best on the farm in terms of yield potential. "It made a remarkable recovery," Cobb said.

When asked what factors may have contributed to the latter, Hydrick noted, "the only reason we kept this field was because of Rovral," which was applied in-furrow at four ounces.

"The plants looked totally dead," Cobb said. "You couldn't see anything on top, but when you pulled it up, the root was in pretty good shape. Then it started putting out leaves again."

Cobb went from 100 percent non-Bt cotton in 2001 to about 85 percent Bt cotton this year. He called the move one of the toughest decisions he's ever made. But with the heavy tobacco budworm pressure that came this year, it turned out to be a good one.

"I have $70 plus in worm control in non-Bt cotton. We averaged 1.5 sprays of pyrethroid on our Bollgard cotton for about $12 an acre."

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