Extension specialists reporting on the state of Alabama's cotton crop gave it an overall good rating during the East-Central Alabama Cotton Tour, held on Aug. 19. However, that was before Hurricane Katrina, and some growers were still assessing damage from the storm in early September.

“Most of the damage we've been hearing about is in the Mobile County area,” says Dale Monks, Auburn University Extension cotton specialist. “If cotton north of there had been open at the time of the storm, the damage would have been worse.”

Typically in a storm situation, cotton will be whipped around by the wind and the plant will produce a stress hormone, explains Monks. “Cotton turns red and younger bolls will mature enough that they try to open. Yield and maturity basically stop at the time of the storm. All portions of the plant are effected, including the root,” he says.

Some areas in north Alabama that were dry when Katrina came through the state might have benefited from the rainfall, he adds.

Alabama's cotton acreage appears to have stabilized at about 560,000 acres, said Monks during the east-central Alabama tour. The state agricultural statistics service rates most of the state's crop in the good to excellent range.

“That all depends on where you're located at the time. We've got everything from cotton that has drowned out, that is about knee-high and has bloomed out at the top, to some really good cotton. It's all over the board, but we think we have a pretty good crop — not as good as the past two to three years, but we still have some good potential,” he says.

Over the past month, Monks says he has seen a lot of fruit shed in some Alabama fields. “There are a lot of reasons floating out there. It has been cloudy and rainy in some spots and too dry in others. There also have been warmer temperatures at night. There are a lot of reasons we can give for a boll falling off the plant,” he says.

In mid-August, some areas of the state were 5 to 6 inches above normal in terms of rainfall amounts, says Monks. Fairhope had received their normal annual rainfall amount by the first part of August. “They're about 27 inches above normal since the beginning of the season. We had rainfall early in the season, and I still think we're a week to 10 days behind normal in some areas in terms of finishing up with this crop. We'll need some dry weather to get this crop out of the fields,” he says.

Alabama cotton producers have seen above-average injury from thrips this year, says Ron Smith, Auburn University Extension entomologist. “Early on, it was a below-average bug year. But as we've moved into mid and late season, it has turned into an above-average bug year. Worms, as a whole, have been below average throughout the state, but some areas have seen significant damage,” he says.

In addition, it has been a below-average year for beneficial insects, he adds. “They just haven't been there this year, and that has been the case throughout the state.”

The thrips injury period wasn't due necessarily to a large number of thrips, says Smith. “It was more due to the fact that the nights were cool, and cotton was growing off well during the early part of the season. It didn't matter what you used to control them, there still were signs of thrips injury.

“Normally, we try and get our cotton out of the thrips injury window while our at-planting materials are still working, and that'll be for a period of about three to four weeks.

“This year, the cotton was still sitting there 30 days or so later, which means we're already out of the benefit window for the materials used at planting, whether it be seed treatments or in-furrow granules,” he says.

Most all cotton in the state, says Smith, could have benefited from an over-spray. “Most all fields grew out of that window, and all we lost, in the end, was a small amount of fruit, and that's usually what we lose from thrips injury,” he says.

The worm situation, he continues, was lighter than normal in Alabama. “Except there have been pockets here and there in the central part of the state where growers have seen two or three generations of bollworms and tobacco budworms on conventional cotton. Right now, there is an area of southeast Alabama, southwest Georgia, and spilling over into Florida, where some fields are overrun with every species of worm — bollworms, tobacco budworms, beet armyworms, fall armyworms, soybean loopers and Southern armyworms.

“Some consultants are pulling out their hair over this situation, and there will be a lot of double stacked-gene cotton planted in the area next year, as this is the second year many of these growers have experienced such pressure. It becomes very expensive when you're trying to spray that many worm species.”

Plant bugs moved into Alabama cotton slowly this year from wild host plants, says Smith. So slowly, in fact, that they weren't considered a problem in June or early July.

“But eventually, the few that moved in raised a generation in the cotton fields. By mid-July, we had plant bug problems. Normally, when you get to that point, and you have an in-field generation, you'll have eggs in the plant stem, immatures, and adults. One application of any material won't solve that situation.”

The residual control of both available plant bug materials is extremely short, says Smith, about two days at the longest. “So if you have a plant bug that hatches two days after you spray, it's pretty much home free. You've got cotton with a large canopy, and it's a much greater problem when you get into July versus June. In places, we needed a follow-up application for plant bugs, and by that time, the stinkbugs were upon us.”

“We recognized early that it was an above-average stinkbug year because we saw so many of them in wheat that was being combined. We knew then that they had over-wintered in high numbers. Whenever that happens, you'll have a problem on all crops.

“We've seen both the brown and green species of stinkbug, although the brown seems to have faded in a lot of areas as the season has progressed.

“Even in central Alabama, where we don't normally have a lot of stinkbug pressure, we had to spray about 10 days early to clean up the stinkbugs and the carry-over plant bugs.”

Growers usually get about two weeks of control from a stinkbug application, so spraying early means that a second application will be needed, says Smith. “In places, where we have late maturing cotton in south Alabama, cotton will require a third or fourth stinkbug application this year.”

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com