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U.S. cotton crop off to rough start

You don't have to look very far on Jimmy Hargett's Alamo, Tenn., farm to see the bad hand Mother Nature has dealt the Mid-South cotton crop this spring.

The edge of one of Hargett's fields is shielded from the north wind by a tree line. The cotton in that area is larger and healthier than cotton just a few feet away where the trees did not provide a barrier.

“Cold ground hurts cotton. Cold, damp ground hurts cotton worse. Cold, damp ground with a north wind is just about a no-no,” says Hargett, who farms several thousand acres in Crockett and Haywood Counties in west Tennessee.

While warmer temperatures reportedly have helped improve the Mid-South crop's prospects, the north wind and unseasonably cool temperatures in mid-May have taken their toll, cotton specialists say.

As a result, the Mid-South's cotton acreage is expected to fall from 360,000 to 560,000 acres below USDA's earlier estimate of 4.02 million acres. Nationwide, some analysts say, U.S. farmers could plant as few as 13.5 million acres (vs. earlier predictions of 14.8 million).

“I've had only one other crop to start off this bad and that was 1967. It stayed cool during the year and we had frost in September. We made 250 pounds to the acre. This start is worse,” said Hargett, who replanted about 12 percent of his 5,000 acres of cotton this year.

Extension specialists say West Tennessee farmers lost 26,000 acres of cotton to bottom-land flooding in Lauderdale, Lake and Tipton Counties along the Mississippi River. Growers will probably try to plant the ground in soybeans.

“It's too late for replanting cotton,” said Craig Massey, University of Tennessee area Extension specialist, in a June 3 interview.

Massey estimates growers replanted 25 percent to 30 percent of cotton acreage in west Tennessee this spring. “In some of the southern tier counties, where growers started planting cold, wet bottom land in April, we replanted anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent.”

In March, USDA projected plantings for Tennessee at 580,000 acres. The final number could be closer to 500,000 acres because of this spring's environmental conditions, according to Massey.

Missouri's cotton acreage could drop from an estimated 405,000 acres to 390,000 to 395,000 acres due to sand damage, cold weather, thrips and seedling disease.

“I'm guessing that we'll replant between 30,000 acres and 50,000 acres,” says Missouri Extension cotton specialist Bobby Phipps. “There will be about 10,000 acres to 15,000 acres lost that will go to soybeans.”

Because the Bootheel has such a short-growing season, a better-than-average cotton crop yield at harvest is not likely even under optimum growing conditions, according to Phipps.

Phipps described the condition of the Bootheel cotton crop at the end of May as “very poor. You have to really look hard to find a nice-looking field. We had the most replanting we've had in years.”

Farther south, producers are looking at drought or flooding, depending on which side of the Arkansas-Louisiana line they farm.

“We've been hit hard with the drought,” says Randy Machovec, consultant with Pest Management Enterprises in Cheneyville, La. “We finally got some timely rains, but I'm not sure how far they'll go. It's certainly too late in some fields that are being replanted.”

Machovec said central Louisiana received two days of rain the last week of May — “our first two rainy days of the season.”

And it hasn't rained in Machovec's portion of central Louisiana since. “There are cracks in these fields that I can put my arm into up the shoulder. It's unbelievable, especially with all the rain further north.”

Machovec still sees fields with no stand. The state is in a horrible rain deficit and the crops are going to be impacted negatively. Machovec sees yields being 25 or 30 percent off normal.

The big problem, besides being perilously close to being outside the planting window, is farmers are spot planting into fields that are already eight-and-nine-node cotton. That cotton is going to be tough to manage, especially with Roundup Ready varieties. “Unless a farmer has a hooded sprayer or a shielded sprayer, he's going to be behind the 8-ball,” says Machovec.

“Up until the rains we got the last week of May, we had a few fields already being irrigated. If we hadn't had the last rains, we'd have been in real trouble. But since the rain fell, north Louisiana seems to be in better shape than much of Arkansas and further south,” says Bagwell.

Making a comment on cotton acreage in the state is still guesswork, says Louisiana Extension Cotton Specialist Sandy Stewart. “The highest estimate I've seen was from the USDA at 660,000 acres. The National Cotton Council had us around 600,000 acres recently. I suspect both those estimates are optimistic.”

“With this late date, a portion of the acreage originally slotted for cotton is going to be planted in soybeans. What you can take to the bank is this: cotton acreage in the state is going to be a lot lower than anyone suspected a couple of months ago.”

In Arkansas, cotton has been hammered statewide by cold, wet conditions.

“We've got some seedling disease, some Rhizoctonia, some black root rot in southeast Arkansas and some other things. It's just too cold and wet,” says Don Plunkett, Ark. Extension cotton verification program coordinator.

On top of the cold damage, farmers in the state are seeing many thrips. “We're telling farmers that if they've got an older, struggling crop, they need to keep the thrips off and give the plants a chance. We're not through seeing some of the older, besieged plants die. Some of the sicker, stressed cotton is going to go ahead and bite the dust. The young crop planted in the last couple of weeks in May, should come up okay, though,” says Plunkett.

“At one time, I thought we'd have around 1 million acres of cotton, which was up from USDA's estimate of 970,000 acres,” said Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. “Now, I think we'll be closer to their estimate — around 960,000 acres.”

In driving around the state looking at fields (the week of June 3), Robertson says it appears that the cotton crop is starting to come around. Plants are getting new growth and “it looks a whole lot better than it did a week ago.”

“Take out your calendar, tear the month of May out and throw it away. We lost the month of May,” said Mississippi Extension Cotton Specialist Will McCarty.

Acreage “is anybody's guess,” said McCarty. “I'm having a hard time coming up with a figure. I still see fields rowed up with nothing on them. And we're still planting (as of June 5). I think our acreage will fall somewhere between 1.1 million acres and 1.2 million acres. Some people say 1.1 million is optimistic.”

“Our acreage will likely be a bit off from the USDA planting intentions report of 1.4 million acres because some Mississippi growers are choosing soybeans and corn over cotton this year,” said Charles Snipes, Extension area agronomist and cotton specialist for the Delta region of Mississippi.

In other parts of the Cotton Belt:

As of early June, 93 percent of Georgia's estimated 1.5 million-acre cotton crop had been planted. “Parts of the state, particularly that which was established early in central and south Georgia were off to an excellent start,” says Steve M. Brown, University of Georgia Extension cotton specialist.

“Extreme drought had halted planting in early to mid-May, but Georgia received showers in late May and early June. The relief was welcome but temporary. More rainfall is needed in most areas. Thrips have been heavy in many fields, revealing the good and bad of control measures. Growers' primary focus now is on weed control,” he says.

Brown lists the following “lessons learned to date” for Georgia cotton producers:

Initiating planting in mid-April when moisture is adequate and when prevailing temperatures are reasonable is a sound strategy for non-irrigated producers.

Re-running a planter unit over the row is an acceptable substitute for a rotary hoe where crust busting is needed. Properly timed, the planter slices through the crust with little harm to emerging plants.

As of early June, 41 percent of Georgia's cotton crop was rated in fair condition, 39 percent in good condition, 10 percent in poor condition, 7 percent in excellent condition and 1 percent in very poor condition.

Drought conditions for central and some areas of south Alabama were eased temporarily in early June with scattered rainfall, says Dale Monks, Auburn University Extension cotton specialist. Many areas received from one-fourth to more than 1 inch of rainfall during this period.

“For some, the cotton crop looks much better. But for others, it may have come too late to save the stand,” says Monks. “The cotton crop in the southern part of the state has suffered from thrips, seedling disease, drought and slow growth related to cold weather earlier in the growing season.”

Samples submitted to the state plant diagnostic lab from west Alabama have shown signs of Alternaria leafspot disease and heavy thrips damage, he says. Slow growth caused by the drought and cold weather have made plants more susceptible to these organisms, he adds.

The north Alabama cotton crop had been in very good condition until a period of unseasonably cool weather, says Monks. “The result has been wind damage, foliar diseases — including Alternaria and Ascochyta — and slow growth. These conditions set the crop back by as much as two weeks. Several acres of cotton in northern and southern counties have been treated for weeds and/or thrips,” he says.

As of early June, 55 percent of Alabama's cotton crop was rated in fair condition, 30 percent in good condition, 10 percent in poor condition, 6 percent in excellent condition and 4 percent in very poor condition.

More than three-quarters of the cotton crop in North Carolina is rated either good or fair. According to the North Carolina Ag Statistics Service, the crop was rated 37 percent fair and 64 percent good the first week in May.

The North Carolina cotton crop is behind because of heavy pressure from dry weather, thrips and cool weather earlier in the season. “We need some water to get it going,” he says.

North Carolina producers had prospects of planting some 950,000 acres of cotton, a decline of 20,000 acres from 2001 numbers.

In South Carolina, cotton appears to be growing well in most areas of the state following showers the last week in May, says Mitchell Roof, Clemson University Extension entomologist. Almost 70 percent of the crop in Virginia is rate either good or excellent — 65 percent good, 3 percent excellent, according to the Virginia Ag Statistics Service on June 2.

Dry weather is prevalent over the state. Virginia producers had prospects of 98,000 acres of cotton, down from 105,000 in 2001.

Texas farmers are planting the 5.7 million to 5.8 million acres USDA was forecasting earlier. But substantial acreage in south Texas is being lost to dry weather and yields in the Corpus Christi area could already be down 25 percent from last year.

Oklahoma's acreage likely will hold steady at 240,000 to 250,000, but continued dry weather could limit planting, says J.C. Banks, Oklahoma Extension cotton specialist, who says he had hoped to see an increase this year Analysts say New Mexico's upland cotton acreage could fall 27 percent to 55,000 acres this year. American-Pima cotton is expected to remain stable at 6,000 acres.

In California and Arizona, growers are almost afraid to talk about their crop for fear they will be like the emerging sports stars that appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated and are never heard from again.

“We are off to a pretty good start,” said California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association president Earl Williams.

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