As cotton farmers across the Mid-South begin prepping for harvest, crop prospects, with a few exceptions, look good but will need open weather to maintain yield and quality.
Weather, so far, has been troublesome.
Hurricane Laura, a deadly storm tagged as the strongest to make landfall in Louisiana history, damaged cotton, other crops and infrastructure as it made its way across Louisiana and into Arkansas before downgrading into a tropical depression as it moved north and east.
Damage along the hurricanes path was variable.
“We were lucky in the northeast part of the state,” says Hank Jones, a crop consultant in Winnsboro, La.
“All we got was a little rain and a little wind. The further west you go, the worse it gets.”
Worse to the west
Central and south Louisiana had it much worse, he says. “That storm was bad, devastating with 100 mile per hour winds as far north as Monroe. Laura did infinitely more damage than Rita. The damage is unreal and it’s not just a 5-mile stretch.”
He says the area hardest hit produces little cotton. “The Red River Valley and Alexandria got hit pretty hard, but the bulk of where the storm went was not through cotton country.”
Crop consultant Travis Vallee, Pineville, La, says conditions to the south and west were worse but not a total loss.
“Fortunately, most of the cotton was still pretty green,” Vallee says. “I only had a few fields at about 50% open and those fields had about 10% of the lint knocked on the ground.
“Other losses and complications are yet to be determined. Many peduncles are broken, bruised, and twisted and the bolls attached may or may not open or may or may not complete fiber development. Many limbs are broken, which will have the same impact as the damaged peduncles, as well as increasing the likelihood of picker choke ups.”
Vallee says most of the area’s cotton is lodged, “placing much of the fruit near the soil surface in a mat of foliage, vulnerable to deterioration. Cotton needs a drought, but we’ve had a couple additional rain events already and more is predicted for mid-week (Sept. 6-12).”
He says farmers are just beginning to apply harvest aids and will continue widescale defoliation soon. “I hope the plants will stand up a bit when the weight comes off.”
Jones says the northeast Louisiana cotton crop “is over, regardless of planting date. I’ve never seen cotton open as fast as this.”
Defoliation under way
He says producers are already defoliating early-planted cotton. He expects yield to range from “very good cotton to some marginal. It’s not going to be a home run crop but will probably be pretty good. Later-planted cotton doesn’t look as good as I would want; early-planted cotton looks very good.”
He says his growers “dodged a bullet on most of the cotton acres. We’re in a hurry now to get it out. We need a good September and early October. We can survive with the crop we have, but we don’t need another storm or more bad weather. I don’t like the odds of dodging two bullets.”
Louisiana harvested acreage is likely to total 200,000, “much less than last year,” Jones says.
Arkansas also dodge a bullet, says University of Arkansas Extension specialist Bill Robertson.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how little impact we had from Laura,” Robertson says. “I had 4 inches of rain at my house. We have had close to another 3 inches from storms that came after Laura.”
He says the storm left cotton “leaning over but not laying down flat. Some cotton doesn’t look like anything happened to it; some fields are a tangled-up mess. It’s hard to walk through.”
Robertson says cotton still standing straight looks good but lacks the boll load of the tangled-up mess. “The tangled cotton should still pick well,” he says.
“My real concern now, is boll rot,” he adds.
“For now, we are still set for a really good cotton yield. But boll rot is becoming more prevalent in fields. We need a break from wet conditions.”
The National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) estimates a 1,195 pounds per acre yield. “We’re in perfect alignment with NASS,” Robertson says. “Our cotton looks good, really good boll retention all the way through the season. We have good plant height and a good uniform boll load.”
Estimates indicate about 500,000 acres for harvest in Arkansas.
“We have very good yield potential,” says Tyson Raper, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture Extension cotton specialist. “Much of our crop suffered through a very dry August; only a few areas were able to catch the occasional afternoon thunderstorm during that period.”
He says producers made aggressive plant growth regulator applications the past several years to keep several new cultivars from getting rank.
“This year, producers continued those same aggressive applications, expecting rainfall, which didn’t come. As a result, you can watch a rabbit run down the rows of much of our crop. I don’t think the short crop will hurt our yields though; I still suspect we will break 1,000 pounds per acre on the state average. The dry weather has sped maturity of this crop.”
He says Hurricane Laura and the subsequent rains restarted growth. “Now, we are dealing with young, succulent leaves with thin cuticles above thick, leathery leaves with thick cuticles. Finding the defoliant concoction that allows us to shed all growth without sticking some leaves will be tricky. Fortunately, at the moment, temperatures will allow us to use thidiazuron.
Later in the year, things are going to get tricky. Our earliest planted acres will likely receive the first of two defoliation shots this week (Sept. 7-13). The bulk of our acreage is still 10 to 14 days away from that first shot.”
Brian Pieralisi, Mississippi State University Extension cotton specialist, says most areas of Mississippi “have a good-looking cotton crop. We need favorable weather, meaning heat and dry weather to finish the crop, open bolls, and harvest.”
By Sept. 3, Pieralisi was expecting farmers to begin defoliating cotton planted the first week of May and early maturing varieties “within the next few days.
“I expect to see many acres defoliated next week (beginning Sept. 7), which will put cotton harvest on time beginning in the middle of September. USDA updated acreage to 520,000 acres, and I think this is an accurate number, down from the March prediction of 630,000 acres.”
He says cotton delayed by early rainfall “did not grow well early and did not establish a good root system, causing potential problems throughout the season.”
He says potassium deficiency symptoms showed in some cotton for several reasons. “The best-case scenario was reflected in cotton in a high-yielding situation with a heavy boll load due to plant usage. In other scenarios, the plants did not have an adequate root system to acquire these nutrients from the soil profile, which was exaggerated when conditions turned dry and nutrient mobility of K2O ceased.”
Pieralisi says thrips posed more problems early than usual in many areas, but most cotton recovered. “Insect pressure in most areas was moderate and if properly managed did not cause problems.”
Markets and weather
“The primary concerns I hear from growers are market prices and tropic weather systems,” he says. “Growers are ready to get this crop out of the field and begin preparing land for next year. This would allow growers to address soil fertility and build up nutrient profiles. The past few falls and winters have been wetter than normal; consequently, more emphasis has been on filling in ruts and establishing beds.”
Across the Mid-South, the 2020 cotton crop is mostly mature and ready to defoliate. Producers may face some unusual challenges with defoliation, following late summer storms, including the hurricane.
Raper says some Tennessee cotton is showing late vegetative growth before defoliation. “That growth will be difficult to remove.”
He says two harvest aid applications likely will be necessary to avoid increased color and leaf grade. He recommends increased spray volume, increased pressure, and aggressive products.
Pieralisi says producers should be prepared to initiate harvest aid applications when 850 DD60s (heat units) are accumulated after five nodes above white flower (NAWF) or cutout. “Recently, we have averaged about 20 heat units a day, which puts many acres close to termination.”
He says a good standard defoliation program consists of two applications:
Application A – Thidiazuron 2 to 3 ounces per acre + 8 to 16 ounces ethephon. Tribufos 12 to 16 ounces per acre (aggressive option)
Application B – ET 1.5 – 2 ounces per acre + ethephon
“This is just an example,” Pieralisi says. “A detailed list of options and scenarios is explained in the Mid-South Defoliation Guide, a good resource for defoliating cotton in Mississippi.” See: http://bit.ly/MSDefGuide.