The lower Southeast cotton crop was worth bragging about this summer. Some fields still look strong. But as bales get delivered to gins, we can see that one of the wildest hurricane seasons in recent memory, coupled with cloudy, rainy days, knocked the hope out of the crop.
"There’s a saying, “Good crops keep getting better and better,” as harvest and ginning proceeds, meaning that in a really good year, yield numbers rise as the season progresses. The opposite is true for “bad crops.” In many places the 2020 crop was quite good but has declined considerably, largely because of Laura, Sally, Delta, and Eta, as well as extended periods of overcast, drizzly weather during what is normally our driest period. Hard lock, boll rot, wind and rain have taken a big toll on our crop," said Steve Brown in mid-November.
The Alabama Cooperative Extension Service cotton specialist added, "Quality-wise, the crop actually looks better than it should, but one glaring point is the extraneous matter call of seed coat fragments. The season total for bales classed with seed coat fragments exceeds 7% and will likely go higher. This was caused by the severe weathering on an open crop with relatively mild temperatures. It suggests a lot of seed sprouting and a general decline of seed integrity and quality."
The issue is geographically stark. Cotton closer to the Gulf of Mexico had far more problems with quality and seed coat fragments than cotton farther inland. The USDA Classing Office Quality Report for the Week Ending Nov. 12 in Macon, which is in middle Georgia, showed much higher than normal issues with seed fragment. The Memphis classing office's report for the same time showed hardly any issues with extraneous matter.
In August, USDA predicted Alabama growers would average 981 pounds per acre. By October's report, predicted average yields had dropped to 960 pounds per acre.
"My guess is that the average will decline closer to 850 pounds per acre. FSA cotton sign-up is tallied at almost 445,000 acres (in Alabama). As of Nov. 1, ginnings were 135,650 bales compared to 334,750 and 230,950 for the prior two years on the same date," Brown said.
Florida cotton growers are not faring better. As of mid-November, more than half the cotton crop in the Panhandle was rated as poor to very poor, according to the USDA Nov. 16 weekly crop report.
Ken Barton farms peanuts and cotton in Holmes County, Fla., about an hour's drive from the Gulf of Mexico. On Nov. 17, he told Southeast Farm Press, "The cotton harvest is not good here. We've had more boll rot than we've ever had, and we'll be lucky to average a bale (per acre), but I've heard of some places much worse."
Libbie Johnson is the University of Florida Extension agriculture agent in Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, where Hurricane Sally landed in September.
"We are estimating a loss of between 40% and 60% across the board. While riding on pickers, it is really easy to see all the cotton lying thickly on the ground. Farmers are continuing to pick though," she said.
Harvest is going quickly now because growers "don’t have to wait at all on a boll buggy in the field—it takes forever to get a full basket of cotton. Many growers are disappointed because they were looking at a decent crop pre-Hurricane Sally. We had enough rain in our dryland cotton this year, but then the rest of the season fell apart after Sally. It stayed wet here. It didn’t dry up and a good wind start blowing. Growers are happy for a few great weeks to move with cotton now as most all peanuts are picked around these parts," she said.
Based in Bainbridge, Tommy Dollar's family has farmed and ran agribusinesses for decades in the southwest corner of Georgia. He told Southeast Farm Press Nov. 17 that the 2020 late-season weather has been as bad, and likely worse, than what Hurricane Michael did two years ago in October when it devastated the region's ag community and cotton crop. He said the region has received 150% to 200% more than the typical rainfall the last two months. Coupled with extended cloudy days, the yield expectation and quality has been crippled with some discounts for quality knocking 10 cents to 15 cents per pound out of the cotton.
Growers in the area needed a chance to deliver a good crop, Dollar said, but it is becoming clear that will not happen this year. Growers need relief.