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Variability makes Mississippi cotton hard to judge

Mississippi's 2002 cotton crop may not be experiencing the drought challenges of past years, but the variable conditions are not making this an easy crop to predict either.

“The state's crop is at a varied stage of development due to an extended planting season,” said Will McCarty, cotton specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service. “Instead of the normal five to seven weeks of planting, it took eight to nine weeks. That's longer than we would like to see.”

Add the scattered showers that Mississippi's fields have received this summer to the planting challenges, and growers may see significantly different conditions from one field to another or even within the same field. “The rains have been lifesavers in a lot of fields, but I've never seen a record-type yield from such a non-uniform crop. We are just on track for an average crop,” McCarty said.

Mike Steede, Extension director in George County, Miss., said the cool, dry weather early in the season contributed to erratic growth.

“We had some cotton in one field at the pinhead square stage and other plants that had only three or four leaves, which is not a very even crop,” Steede said. “This is about a 10- to 14-day difference. Recent rains have helped the crop even out, but it is still two to three weeks behind past years.”

John Coccaro, area Extension agent for agronomic crops in Sharkey County, Miss., said depressed prices have motivated more growers to try reduced tillage operations as much as possible.

“In addition, even though times have been tough the last couple of years, growers have continued to purchase wider equipment to reduce the tractors and labor needed to produce a crop,” Coccaro said. “Many have gone to 12-row equipment, and it appears more growers are heading that way.”

One ray of sunshine for cotton growers is the lower irrigation costs expected for this year's crop because of this summer's rains. But even the rain is a mixed blessing as the season progresses.

“Actually, most growers would probably prefer conditions to be drier in August and throughout the harvesting period,” Coccaro said. “Normally, that is what we can expect, but we still remember the excessive August rains last year that reduced the quality of that crop.”

Coccaro said there was a slight reduction this year in use of genetically modified varieties such as Bt and Roundup Ready cotton. By using conventional varieties, growers avoid technology expenses. Still, most growers indicate they can farm transgenic varieties with less labor and machinery costs than the conventional varieties.

Steede said the use of conventional varieties is not affecting the pressure from weeds and insects, but it does affect the way the crop is managed.

Linda Breazeale writes for MSU Ag Communications.

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