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Irrigation helped Mississippi cotton yields… at a cost

Cotton’s reign as king of Mississippi’s row crops remained unchallenged in 2006 as it posted an estimated $583 million production value, but growers paid a high price to bring it to harvest.

Cotton’s estimated value rose 9 percent from the state’s $533 million production in 2005.

“It was a real frustrating year,” said Tom Barber, cotton specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “Some people picked the best crop they’ve ever picked, but it was probably the most expensive crop they’ve ever paid for.”

With the exception of localized showers, it didn’t rain from April, when cotton was being planted, until September across most of the state. Barber said by July 25, when cotton was filling out bolls, the drought was categorized as severe across the majority of the state, and extreme along the Gulf Coast.

With few exceptions, the only good harvests in 2006 were from irrigated acres. Barber said 40 to 45 percent of the state’s 1.2 million acres of cotton were irrigated.

“Our yield on the non-irrigated acreage was better than everyone thought it would be, with yields averaging maybe a bale an acre,” Barber said. “Where we started irrigation early enough and carried it long enough, those yields were excellent.”

Cotton prices have been about 55 cents a pound, but with high pumping costs for irrigation, many producers had to have excellent yields to break even.

“It’s hard to sit there and let a crop burn up, but at the same time, it’s hard to put a lot of money into a crop not knowing if the market price is going to be good,” Barber said.

Diesel fuel averaged about $2.20 cents a gallon, well above fuel costs in 2005. Barber said the effect of low cotton prices and high input costs is going to drive the 2007 cotton acreage in Mississippi to the lowest levels its been in years.

“My guess is we’ll lose 25 percent to 30 percent and go below a million acres,” Barber said.

On top of the drought, cotton producers fought a significant battle with seedling disease and had to replant many acres.

“Our typical April and May weather conditions flip-flopped, and we had warmer weather in April than in May,” Barber said. “Almost 60 percent of the cotton was planted by May 1, rather than the usual 40 percent. When May turned cool with windy, cloudy days and some wet weather, we got a lot of seedling disease.”

After the crop was established, spider mites became a problem. Angus Catchot, an Extension entomologist, said spider mite populations reproduce rapidly in hot, dry weather. Mississippi has had these conditions for the last two years.

“In 2005, we sprayed just under 300,000 acres for spider mites,” Catchot said. “Up until that point, that was pretty much unprecedented for spider mites in Mississippi, but in 2006 we sprayed about 415,000 acres.”

Spider mites feed by puncturing cells on the underside of leaves, causing those with a high enough infestation to turn red and sometimes fall off prematurely. As this happens, the plant loses its ability to create photosynthesis, and this ultimately reduces yield.

Budworm and bollworm numbers spiked this year, causing producers to treat acreage for these pests. Aphid numbers increased and required treatment on many acres. Plant bugs, which in recent years have been cotton’s No. 1 pest in Mississippi, were not as big a problem in 2006 as the extreme drought reduced alternate weed hosts and lowered their numbers.

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