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Tornadoes, hurricanes rip cotton

In the last nine weeks, Scotty McClain has survived heart surgery, two hurricanes, a tornado and the partial loss of a cotton crop. All he's hoping for now is two weeks of good weather, so he can finally give his picker — and his ticker — a well-deserved rest.

The latest trouble came calling in late September, after a good run of harvesting for the Tensas Parish, La., cotton producer. Average cotton yield across the farm was around 1,000 pounds. As the sun set on the afternoon of Sept. 24, it was rainy, but nine modules were buttoned up on the northeast end of the field.

That night, Hurricane Rita, a giant Category 4, plowed though the Gulf of Mexico a couple of hundred miles to the south, churning up water and spawning tornadoes on her easternmost edge.

One of those tornadoes visited McClain's 1,250-acre cotton farm. It took only a matter of minutes to do its dirty work. It ripped the tarps off the nine modules and blew several bales of picked cotton back out into the field where it tangled with uncut stalks. It destroyed a 100-year-old church adjacent to the field and blew down another turn-of-the-century home 2 miles away. Luckily, McClain's own home was spared any damage.

In addition to tornado damage, another 100 pounds to 200 pounds per acre of cotton was blown onto the ground by winds from the hurricane, according to McClain.

This was a story repeated across many areas of the state, according to Sandy Stewart, LSU AgCenter cotton specialist. “Yield losses from Hurricane Rita range from 10 percent to 65 percent on the remaining 60 percent of the state's cotton acres yet to be harvested. The losses are greatest in the southern and western cotton-producing areas.”

The combination of high wind and torrential rainfall resulted in seed cotton being blown out of the bolls and onto the ground, according to Stewart. The quality of cotton that can be harvested will probably be affected, and could result in deterioration of color grades.

“In some cases, cotton in modules received some damage, because the winds blew the protective tarps off the modules,” Stewart said. “Losses in quality and harvest efficiency, increased defoliation costs and increased fuel costs associated with Hurricane Rita magnified the overall effect on the Louisiana cotton industry.”

Estimated Louisiana cotton acreage for 2005 stands at about 600,000. Before Rita made landfall, excellent yields were being reported across the state.

Stewart estimates an overall loss of production in the state of between 10 percent and 15 percent — between 115,000 bales and 172,000 bales. In October, USDA estimated Louisiana cotton production at 1.15 million bales.

Before Rita hit, a large percentage of the state's cotton crop was classed in the white color grades. Stewart said some cotton harvested after the hurricane may still receive a white color grade, although an increase in light spot or spotted grade is anticipated. This can result in a 2.4-cent to 6.5-cent per pound reduction in price.

According to Stewart, estimates for cotton losses because of Hurricane Rita by regions are:

Central Louisiana — 25 percent to 65 percent loss. Individual losses in Rapides Parish may be 75 percent to 100 percent.

Northwest Louisiana — an average of 20 percent to 40 percent loss.

Northeast Louisiana — 10 percent to 30 percent loss, depending on location.

During the week following the storm, McClain acted quickly to re-gather his tornado-tangled cotton, and offset some of the losses. When the field and the cotton dried up a little bit, McClain used a Boll Buggy and his four-row John Deere 9960 cotton picker to salvage the cotton blown into the field. It did feel a little strange running the picker through a field that resembled a snow bank. “It was some pretty good cotton,” he joked.

The salvaged cotton, about 10 bales, was dumped into trailers. McClain's gin, which knew of his predicament, ginned the re-picked cotton as soon as it reached the gin yard. As soon as the remaining modules in the field are picked up by the gin, McClain hopes to get back in the field to see if he can salvage any additional cotton.

McClain figures he lost 10 to 15 bales to the tornado. But he's learned to take everything in stride, saying simply, “It just wasn't a good day. But our gin came out and helped us get the tarps back on. And we feel good that we were able to salvage some of it.”


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