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Stellar season: Growers celebrate '03 cotton

Forgive cotton farmers if they've champagne on their breath. This is a growing season to celebrate.

“I am entirely and pleasantly surprised with this cotton crop,” says Bobby Phipps, Missouri Extension cotton specialist. “For months I thought we had a bad crop and I blew it. I was wrong big-time. It's a good thing I wasn't betting on race horses. We ended up having a great crop with nice grades and quality. Overall, our crop has been terrific.”

Phipps says almost all of the Bootheel's cotton is picked — perhaps 5 percent is left.

Tennessee has also made a “surprisingly good crop,” says Chism Craig, that state's cotton specialist. “If you'd have asked me in July if we'd make bale-and-a-half cotton this year, I'd have said only with extreme luck. Well, luck was on our side.

“The NCC and USDA have us at 772 pounds. If we end up with that, it would be a state record (the previous record was 763 pounds). That number may be pushing it a little bit, but it wouldn't surprise me if we end up close to a bale-and-a-half average.”

Sandy Stewart, Louisiana Extension cotton specialist, says the state's final yield total will end up around 900 pounds per acre. That will set a state record.

“Grades have been better than in years past,” says Stewart. “We've still got around 20 percent of our cotton classed as high micronaire but our color grades have been excellent, staple length has improved and we're happy. It's certainly a change from last year when almost half our cotton was high micronaire.

“We had a fantastic harvest season. There were very few days we were kept out of fields due to rains. We also didn't experience any hurricane damage this year. We didn't have a perfect growing season, but we had a fall that made up for that. The top crop has yielded great this year and, since we had a warm fall, we were able to wait those bolls out. Oftentimes, when you're waiting for those bolls there are weather-related losses in the middle and bottom of the plant. That didn't happen this time around.”

This year, says Stewart, “the planets lined up for cotton producers.”

Prior to harvest, Bill Robertson knew the cotton in the southern half of Arkansas would be good. The big question for the state specialist was how well the late cotton north of I-40 would do.

“Our late cotton was really late — mostly planted the last week of May,” says Robertson. “That situation could have been disastrous. But, for once, the weather held up and we came out smelling roses.

“Usually, it's the middle of September before we feel a break in the heat. This year, we started September with a cold snap. Later, we regained some heat units and experienced dry weather. That helped open late cotton bolls and kept pickers running.”

The USDA has Arkansas pegged at 909 pounds on around 940,000 acres. Robertson says those numbers are “pretty close” and he suspects the state is 99 percent picked.

Unlike his Extension comrades from other Delta states, Will McCarty has been high on his state's cotton all season. The Mississippi Extension cotton specialist says there's still a little bit of cotton left in northeast Mississippi fields. Other than that, “we're pretty much done. Most of our gins are finished working — many were before Thanksgiving. Considering that we were late planting the crop, we harvested the crop extremely quickly.

“We've had some areas that experienced high micronaire counts. But statewide, there hasn't been anything major in regards to quality.”

Mississippi's cumulative yield could be a little ahead of the government report, says McCarty.

“The USDA has us at 916 pounds and I think we might go over that. A bunch of growers set their personal best yield. There was a lot of three-bale cotton made in Mississippi — some farmers averaged that over their entire farm. There were a lot of other growers who made 1,200 to 1,300 pounds.”

From a yield-per-acre standpoint, McCarty believes Mississippi grew a better crop last year. But the 2002 harvest season was terrible. This year, producers were given an ample window to harvest the crop in.

“This year, we had very good weather,” says McCarty. “The first thanks for this excellent crop must go to the good Lord and the weather. After that, we can attribute this success to varieties and management techniques.”

Mississippi cotton had the best boll retention McCarty has seen. Part of that is due to moderate insect pressure, he says. Another part is attributable to a lack of hot weather.

“I don't think we saw a 100 degree day and had very few that were over 95 degrees. Plus, for the most part, we got rain when we needed it.”

Truth is, says Phipps, this is the year producers have been looking for: high yields and high prices. “But, from the way the crop looked until harvest, most folks were saying it wouldn't be a good crop. Now, there are some damaged fields — weather and plant bugs hurt some fields — but there was plenty of two-bale cotton picked.”

In fields Phipps worked, he saw a lot of missing fruiting positions. But he says there were so many extra positions those losses were made up.

“It was really hard to get the crop defoliated and all the bolls open,” says Phipps. “It took a month to get the plants ready to pick instead of the usual two weeks. I've never seen a year so difficult to get bolls open. But once those bolls opened, they all opened. Even the immature bolls in the top that normally don't open did.”

Missouri's micronaire counts seem to be good. “We're still getting a few high micronaire numbers being reported. By now, I thought the counts would turn low, but that isn't the case. Our lengths and strengths are also good. The trash content is really good too. Overall, we've got a heck of a crop.”

This year, Phipps believes yields will hit just above 800 pounds. While, landing the crop in the top four all-time, it won't be a record.

Tennessee made a tremendous crop in spite of many hindrances.

“Look at the low amount of heat units alone,” says Craig. “June was cool, July was warm but after that it cooled off again. So for us to mature bolls on out and so well was surprising. I mean, I've even spoken with a producer who made three-bale cotton on a significant number of his acres. In Tennessee, that's unheard of.”

Craig's variety trials, scattered across four locations, almost averaged three bales to the acre.

“In all seriousness, we made an unbelievable crop considering our extremely late start,” says Craig. “And add on to that the prices for cotton. The attitude in the farming community is the best it's been in years. I heard someone say that in a few weeks there won't be a new Chevy pickup on any Delta lot. Producers are happy for once.”

Grades have also been good. “Last year, we had somewhere around 70 percent high micronaire. This year, that's dropped to around 30 percent. We expected less high micronaire counts with so much late planting but didn't know it would be such a wide swing.”

During early harvest, prior to a predicted freeze, Craig's phone rang off the hook for several days. Farmers were nervous because their crops were only 20 percent open.

“Those freezes never materialized and soon it warmed back up. We had temps over 80 degrees in October. Harvest season was amazing.”

This year helps prove how valuable boll weevil eradication is, says Robertson.

“If you go back a few years prior to weevil eradication, consider what a late crop meant,” he says. “Think about how much a spraying bill was, how much spraying was done for weevils alone. Eradication has helped us realize these new varieties' yield potential.”

Phipps agrees. “I know this: we've had boll weevil eradication for three years and during that span we've had three of our best crops ever. Maybe we're setting some bolls on branch ends and in the tops that we normally lose to weevils. It's worth considering anyway.

“Another thing that helped this year is we never had a long dry period,” says Phipps. “The crop never was drought stressed. The biggest problem we faced was probably plant bugs. Without plant bugs we'd have had an incredible crop.”

A few things have contributed to making a good crop, says Craig. “Obviously, that includes the weather during harvest. But you have to also point at the varieties we planted this year. When you've got an early-maturing, fast-fruiting variety and you take the boll weevil out of the equation, there's a better chance you'll have a nice crop. That's been proven over the last two years. If we keep planting late, it'll eventually catch up to us, though. We don't need to forget that.”

Stewart says he's recently been asked about any bump to Louisiana cotton acres next year. He does expect an increase.

“The degree of the increase is unknown because we not only had a good cotton crop but also good corn and soybean crops here,” says Stewart. “All of that has to be weighed by Louisiana producers. But I do expect cotton to see a bump in acreage.”

Robertson has a final caution: growers need to watch their residual nitrate levels.

“I think we've lost every bit of residual nitrates in a lot of our fields. Even in cotton that was planted behind corn, the crop ran out of nitrogen. It snuck up on some growers who lost yield as a result.”

It's very important for producers to soil sample, he says. It might even be a good idea to pull some deep samples next spring.

“I think our nitrogen fertility levels are going to be off partly because we pulled such a good cotton crop off. It's a delicate balance, though, because some folks are liable to put out a lot of extra nitrogen without testing. Regardless, we need to make sure nitrogen isn't a limiting factor in next year's production.”

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