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Near record crop takes hits: Cotton farmers brace for hard harvest

There is an old saying that “attitude and/or seriousness depends on whose ox is being gored.” Well, there are lots of oxen being gored in Mississippi today.

The August USDA Crop Report estimated that in 2001 Mississippi cotton growers could harvest some 1.68 million acres, yield 743 pounds of lint per acre and produce 2.6 million bales of cotton.

That would have been the second-largest crop ever harvested in Mississippi. The record production of bales was reported in 1937, when Mississippi cotton growers produced 2.69 million bales. However, it required 3.42 million harvested acres to do it. The second-largest crop, produced in 1948, was 2.35 million bales from 2.56 million acres. That's enough about ancient history.

Going into mid-August, anticipation and expectations for all crops were high. It looked like soybeans, corn, rice and cotton were going to make excellent crops. And in some areas those expectations may still exist.

However, weather during the last half of August and the first week of September let the air out of many expectations. August 2001 was perhaps one of the wettest Augusts on record. Rainfall accumulation for the period of Aug. 1 through early September was reported to be 11.09 inches at Stoneville, Miss., 8.95 inches in Greenwood, Miss., and 11.18 inches in Vicksburg, Miss..

This compares to the historical averages for that period of 3.06, 3.07 and 3.40 inches. Some communities might have recorded even higher amounts of rain. Most of this rain fell the last 10 days of August and the first week of September. (And it is raining like the rip outside as I try to type this the night of Sept. 6.)

I do not remember a year that has been this wet during this time. I was told that 1957 was a terrible and disastrous harvest. I remember 1984. In 1984, relentless rains came in late September and early October. While the damage to the crop was bad in 1984, it is potentially much worse in 2001. Period!

Briefly, what has happened during the last two weeks of August and first week of September is that the weather has duplicated a seed germinator. Humidity has been nearly 100 percent; temperatures have been in the range of 85 to 95 degrees with foggy mornings, frequent rains and very poor drying conditions.

Crops with mature seed have suffered great damage. Some fields of grain sorghum and soybeans may have been completely lost.

Boll rot has been a concern all season. The presence of a little boll rot in early August was an indication of good growth and a respectable crop. This has progressed to serious proportions in many fields. Seeds of open and cracked bolls have sprouted worse than I have ever experienced over such a widespread area.

Early-maturing and/or early-planted cotton have been the most affected. Cotton that was mature enough and open enough to have normally been defoliated by Sept. 15 has been devastated in areas of the state receiving the weather I have described.

It seems that the damage extends across the entire state of Mississippi and seems to decrease as you move north (this due to less rain and later-maturing crops in the northern areas of the state — damage, however, is increasing in those areas as well).

If adverse weather conditions persist, damage severity will continue to increase and will spread over a wider geographic region.

As this is written, later-maturing cotton that has little cotton open has suffered from boll rot but not the seed sprouting and destruction present in the more-open cotton. Re-growth at this stage is also as bad as I have experienced and must be dealt with.

Can this damaged cotton be picked and ginned? There is no simple answer to that question. As the top bolls reach maturity, the crop should be defoliated to increase air circulation. A follow-up application of defoliant may be required in fields with lodged, wrapped-up cotton.

In fields with a high percentage of seeds sprouting in the boll, a desiccant may be required to dry green plant material. This may well be true in fields with heavy weed populations as well.

Controlling moisture in seed cotton is critical, even if the weather turns in our favor. Preparing this crop for harvest will be complicated and more expensive than previously expected.

Seek the best advice you can and act as weather allows. Moduling cotton picked with green leaves or sprouted seed can lead to further deterioration of quality. Sprouted seed could either be seriously discounted in value or rejected completely. If these seed are discounted or rejected, seed revenue will not cover the cost of ginning, adding production expense for the grower.

I was reminded that in 1984 we “pushed” pickers through the field to harvest the crop. Well, consider this: most of the pickers running in 1984 were light two-row machines. If rains continue, can you push a four-row or six-row machine with a five- to six-bale basket through a field that was para-plowed this spring or last fall? Something to think about.

I am meeting Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell and other officials on Sept. 7 to show them first-hand what is taking place in the field. Perhaps the weather will improve and our losses will be reduced.

I am sure I sound a little negative because of what I have been called to look at this week. Maybe later I will have seen a better picture in the field and feel a little better about the crop prospects.

Regardless of how bad it is, it could be worse. Each of us is blessed in many ways. Even though the crop is on the verge of a potential disaster, take a moment to be thankful for what we have. And remember, it really could be worse.

Will McCarty is the Mississippi Extension cotton specialist.

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