Murphy has been an unwelcome resident in the Mid-South during spring planting season.
Just about everything that could go wrong has, to some extent. Rain that started last fall has persisted through planting season. Rivers have flooded, soils have warmed and cooled, planting seed quality has been less than ideal, and commodity prices remain in the pits.
“We probably average 25 percent to 40 percent of our cotton acreage planted,” says University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture Extension cotton specialist Tyson Raper. Raper, who works out of the Jackson Research and Extension Center, says by May 6, “we’re probably 30 percent planted and increasing every day that’s clear.”
He notes that cotton farmers, and those who produce other crops, face significant challenges in penciling in a profit this year. They can’t control prices, weather, or, to some extent, production costs. They look to yield to get them through.
Raper says cutting production costs across-the-board may be counterproductive but managing costs will be essential.
“Look at every input critically,” he says. “Producers have opportunities with plant growth regulators, with nitrogen and seeding rates to manage expenses. If they make those decisions well, they can reduce input costs through the season.”
He recommends being “a little more aggressive early on with Pix applications and a little less aggressive with nitrogen rates. If those are not properly managed early, it may add to input costs. Producers may need more fungicide, more insecticide and may see delayed fruiting.
“Look at the production plan and make certain each input is necessary and will produce a return on the investment. Be cautious of what is being sold and look for unbiased research on each input.”
Don’t slash and burn, he says. “Some inputs, such as potassium, are too important.”
Raper says variety selection was the first big decision. “Variety choice means more than a difference in pounds of cotton.” Variety selection also affects quality. He adds that new cultivars being tested show promise of “premium fiber quality and high yield.
“We saw a lot of quality penalties last fall,” he says. “But penalties mostly came from weather issues, wet harvest conditions.”
Low Germ Seed
Seed quality has been an issue this spring and has forced some producers to select varieties other than their top picks.
“We have been concerned with seed quality, low germination rates. Most farmers are aware of the issue and are adjusting. Some had to switch varieties.
“I’ve had a lot of calls about plan B or plan C when a preferred variety is not available,” Raper says. “This is not a specific seed company issue. The condition hurt them all the same.”
He adds that he’s not certain what environmental factor last year affected cotton seed quality. “Seed is sold as low germ,” he says, “so farmers know what they are getting. We haven’t seen a lot of additional testing.”
He says with good soil temperatures, stands should be OK. “But we are concerned with low soil temperatures and heavy rains.”
Thin stands may do well, he adds. “One plant per foot of row is adequate. One to two is optimum and we usually plant more than that.”
Some observers, Raper says, have indicated that the poor seed germination may be “a dormancy issue and could get better. So far, early emergence has been good, and we don’t expect this to be a major issue if we have a good growing environment.”
Early vigor has been good, he adds. “Temperature drives a lot of the vigor.”
Acreage Outlook Unchanged
Raper believes Tennessee acreage, despite the planting season setbacks, will hold close to early projections. “I’m comfortable with the 375,000-acre mark. I will be surprised to see an increase much beyond that.”
Higher plantings seemed more likely last fall. “Late in the year, things looked optimistic for cotton,” he says.
Some suggestions that cotton would take acreage from corn or soybeans seem less likely. Even with delayed corn planting, Raper believes the current cotton acreage projection should remain stable. Some of the acres lost to corn will also not be available for cotton.
He says a lot of fields remain flooded from the Mississippi River. “Cotton is out of the picture for that acreage.”
Rainfall began last fall, hindered harvest, affected quality and persists through planting season. “We recorded 84 inches of rain on the station last year,” Raper says. “A friend from the Gulf Coast told me that’s what they get every year. By August we may be begging for rain.”
The 2018 cotton “was a fairly decent crop. The issue was not quantity but quality. We were fortunate to get the quality we ended up with. A pretty good percentage of the crop was light spot. It was just due to rainfall, a prolonged rainy period that left cotton in the field longer than we would have preferred.”
Most quality penalties, Raper says, “were not severe. We were able to get it out and yields were mostly very good.”
West Tennessee farmers are hoping for better planting conditions as they finish up. “It has rained every Thursday,” Raper says. “But in late April, cotton farmers were able to get started and pick up speed. With the planter capacity we have available, it doesn’t take many good days to get cotton planted.”
Producers were watching forecasts carefully the first week of May. Another Thursday rainfall and cooler temperatures threatened to shut down planting. “Some farmers were hesitant to continue with cold temperatures coming on,” Raper says. “We expected blackberry winter conditions.”
Raper says farmers have gone through “a long fall and a long winter, but things are looking better, and they seem to be more optimistic than they were a month ago.
“All producers,” he says, “are inherently optimistic.”
Murphy can leave now.