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Weeds thriving in cotton fields

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — With all the recent rain and cloudy weather in Arkansas, cotton is struggling to survive. Weeds, on the other hand, are thriving.

"With this wet weather, every weed in the world germinated and is growing. Weeds love this weather," says Ken Smith, weed scientist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service at Monticello.

He said in one field he couldn't see the cotton for the weeds.

"Farmers are in a panic about what to do," Smith said. He sent out information to county agents to help them advise farmers about remedies. The bad news, he noted, is that all of the remedies are expensive and will cut into cotton farmers' already-narrow margin of profit.

Smith said most farmers are in one of two situations. Either their fields are too wet and they can't get in to apply a post-direct herbicide, or cotton has already reached four-leaf stage and farmers can't get their second over-the-top application on. In either case, weeds have grown large and difficult to control.

"We're going to be in a salvage situation before long," Smith said.

Smith said some farmers have applied expensive grass herbicides over the top of Roundup Ready cotton varieties to control out-of-control barnyardgrass, signalgrass and johnsongrass.

"This is the first time I can remember we've gone over the top of Roundup Ready cotton with a grass herbicide. It's unprecedented." Farmers pay a technology fee to use Roundup Ready varieties so they can use the cheaper Roundup herbicide on grasses and other weeds, Smith said.

"Even if all the rain saved us money on irrigation costs, we're going to lose it on herbicide costs. Herbicide costs are going to be about a third to a half higher than normal. Herbicides costs in a normal season are about $30 an acre. This year, we could spend as much as $50 an acre."

Smith said farmers don't have much choice in the matter. He said he advised a farmer how to fight weeds recently, and the farmer commented, "That's pretty expensive. But I don't guess I have an alternative."

Smith said, "I don't think we're going to lose the cotton crop to weeds because farmers are going to do what they have to do. If farmers did nothing about weeds, they would have zero yields."

Meanwhile, the rain and cloudy conditions pose management problems for cotton growers, says Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. "We have a late crop and it's getting later every day. Normally, we expect a lot of sunshine by now."

Cotton plants thrive on sunlight and need it to produce sugars, he says. "On cloudy days they're not growing and developing like they should. They're struggling to survive."

Arkansas has close to 1 million acres of cotton, and the rain is causing the plants to grow at half the rate they should be. "You can't harvest bolls if the plant doesn't produce. We have to make up for the shortfall of the plant. It can be done. By no means am I saying it's over. But timing is critical."

Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.

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