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Hurricane damage worsens

The news from the Louisiana cotton fields keeps getting worse. According to Louisiana Extension cotton specialist Sandy Stewart, about half of the state’s cotton crop was estimated to be lost to hurricanes Gustav and Ike, and the lingering injury could extend deep into the state’s support infrastructure.

Hurricane Gustav blew through Louisiana in early September when much of the cotton was open and ready for picking. Cotton suffered from hardlock, rotting bolls and lost cotton due to high winds.

Stewart says the losses from Hurricane Ike in mid-September were mostly felt in the cotton producing area around Shreveport. “It was a heartbreaker because that’s where our best cotton was to start with, and it was one of the few places that didn’t have an impact from Hurricane Gustav.

“Now not a single acre of cotton has not been affected in some manner. I haven’t talked to a single farmer who has been pleasantly surprised by yield results.”

Stewart and other Extension leaders have raised their estimate of cotton losses to 50 percent of the crop just in terms of lint yield. “Revenue losses from the seed component will make the losses even higher.”

Stewart noted that some gins will not open this year due to widespread losses in their ginning areas. “That’s a real killer with cottonseed prices where they are right now.”

Repercussions are going to go beyond just the producers and gins, according to Stewart. “It’s going to go into the dealer/distributor network and the aerial applicators. With cotton acres so uncertain, it’s going to impact the consultant side of our industry as well. I wish I had better news for you. But I just don’t right now.”

Hurricane damage extends into other states as well.

Darrin Dodds, Extension cotton specialist for Mississippi, says the severity of damage from two hurricanes that hit Mississippi depends on where in the state you farm. “If you’re in the central to south Delta area, you took the brunt of the damage from the hurricanes. We were looking at some cotton today that was running 50 percent hardlocked bolls. As you go farther north, to around Clarksdale and Tunica, it’s not nearly as bad.”

Dodds says the state has suffered an overall 10 percent to 15 percent yield loss from the hurricanes and wet weather. “I’ve talked to farmers who have had up to 30 inches of rain since mid-August. A few weeks ago, Greenville got 9 inches of rain in three hours.”

Harvest was just getting started in the state in late September, Dodds said. “We were spraying a good bit of defoliant last week (third week of September) and we’re probably going to spray a good bit this week.”

The losses have dropped the Mississippi crop from an above average to an average crop statewide. “Before the hurricanes, almost everyone I talked to said they were happy with the crop they had.”

Dodds says the sentiment among most growers is for another decrease in cotton acreage for 2009. “I had hopes we were going to hit a homerun in terms of yield this year and maybe retain some of the acres we had. But after the hurricanes, it doesn’t seem like there is a lot of positive interest in cotton, at least for next year.”

Arkansas Extension cotton specialist Tom Barber says Chicot and Ashley counties in southeastern Arkansas “were hit hard kind of like the parishes in Louisiana. Our losses may not be as great as theirs, but we’ve lost 35 percent to 40 percent to boll rot and hardlock in those two counties.

“As you move up north, the problems are less and less severe. The biggest problem for us down there before the hurricanes was that we already had 18 inches of rain before the hurricanes. We had a heck of a crop the first week of August all over the state.

“We didn’t have a lot defoliated because we were waiting on the hurricanes to come on through. So we didn’t have a lot blowing out of the bur except on dryland acres.”

Cotton producers are looking to a warm, dry October to get the crop out of the field. But Barber noted that “temperatures are playing with us. It’s been warm this week, but we hear that another cool snap may be coming next week. But we still have a good crop.”

“We got 10 inches of rain out of a cold front before the hurricane,” said Andrew Wargo, who oversees crop production for Baxter Land Co., in Desha County in southeast Arkansas. “So we lost some top crop before the hurricane got here. The combination of the two will probably cost us three-quarter of a bale of cotton, maybe more.

“The biggest impact has been on rice, corn and grain sorghum. We’ve had tremendous shattering of grain sorghum. It’s not a pretty picture.”

Cotton producers in the Missouri Bootheel also braced for storms, but fields suffered little damage. According to Dunklin County Extension agent Mike Milam, “Overall, the crop doesn’t look that bad. Before the hurricane came through, USDA had it pegged at 969 pounds per acre. I suspect that some of the early cotton that was already defoliated lost a fair amount of cotton. But they probably were not going to make a lot of cotton anyway.

“The cotton that still had leaves had a little more protection. I haven’t seen a lot of twisting or lodging, but I’ve heard there has been some of that in New Madrid County.”

Missouri Bootheel cotton producers, like most others in the Mid-South, will likely decrease cotton acreage in light of high input costs and good grain prices, according to Milam. “We were at 500,000 acres two years ago, 400,000 acres last year and USDA says 307,000 acres this year. I think it’s going to drop again next year in favor of corn, soybeans and wheat.”

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