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Mississippi’s cotton crop: It could have been worse

The drive onto campus runs alongside hundreds of acres of cotton research and breeding plots, many of which were still in the fields on the Dec. 4 opening day of the short course.

Pickers ran in those fields until well past dark the night before and were then returned to the sheds as another heavy rain moved through the area.

MSU researchers at locations near campus and throughout the state have struggled to get pickers into the fields. Jack C. McCarty, a USDA cotton breeder located at MSU, recorded 35 inches of rain in some of his fields from Sept. 11 until Dec. 1.

“Most days it was too muddy to even walk into the fields, much less put a picker out there,” he says.

Even with the delays and loss of yield and research data, he doesn’t believe he’ll lose any breeding lines or germplasm, although several research projects have lost an entire year’s worth of yield data.

McCarty, like many growers at the short course, just can’t remember a harvest season this relentless and a cotton crop so resilient.

Despite two hurricanes and accumulations of up to 3 feet of rain in some of the state’s cotton-growing areas, Mississippi’s cotton crop is still expected to exceed the state’s five-year average and possibly be one of only 11, two-million-plus bale crops in recorded history.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is projecting Mississippi’s final harvest to average 821 pounds of lint per acre from 1.17 million acres, although an estimated 6 percent of the crop was still in the fields on Dec. 1.

“I don’t think we will quite harvest 1.17 million acres. It will probably be closer to 1.15 million acres,” said Will McCarty, MSU Extension cotton specialist, in his opening comments at the short course.

“I think when it’s all over and done, we won’t make that 821 pounds,” McCarty noted. “We may get close to 800 pounds, and we’ll definitely exceed the 740-pound, five-year average in the state.”

The blessing or curse, depending on how the year is viewed, is that going into harvest, Mississippi’s cotton crop was nothing short of outstanding.

“I really believe that in 2002, if we had had a good harvest season, we could have scared 1,000 pounds per acre on that 1.17 million acres. We made the best cotton crop I personally have ever seen,” he said.

“I’ve never seen fields of cotton yielding what they did prior to two tropical storms and 35 inches of rain. I even saw fields as recently as last week that were still picking close to two bales of cotton. I really think we produced one of the best cotton crops we have ever grown in the state of Mississippi. Unfortunately, we just weren’t able to get it out of the field on a timely basis.”

McCarty said for the growers with early crops that were able to get most or all of their harvesting completed before the wet fall set in, yields were outstanding and will account for a large part of the overall good state yields. For the more than half of the cotton that was defoliated and picked in between and after prolonged periods of rain, yields are down several hundred pounds per acre of what they should have been going into the season.

“We got this crop picked way behind the five-year average. It was exposed to a lot of rain. It’s been exposed to a lot of elements that are reducing turnout, yield, seed quality and fiber quality, but even with all of that, we are still going to scrap up well over a five-year average statewide, which attests to the size of the crop we grew this year.”

McCarty said federal agencies are actively collecting information to evaluate if a disaster declaration for row-crop producers in the state might be an option.

“It’s tough to have a disaster when you look at a crop that’s projected to be about 75 pounds ahead of the five-year average, but we are working on it. We are doing everything we can to be sure all the costs of this crop are taken into consideration including such things how many final drive units we tore out of the pickers trying to pick this crop or how much cotton we lost compared to what we could have had.

“A good bit of our cotton seed is practically non merchantable, and the gins are going to have to charge to gin the cotton or else they will have to absorb a loss. The people responsible for recommending disaster assistance just may not realize how many times a disk is going to have to run over the land before growers can plant it next year, but they are hearing about it. We are talking to them about these kinds of intangibles. I don’t know what kind of help we are going to get, but we’ve had a terrible time getting this crop out of the field, and it’s been a very expensive harvest season,” he said.

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