Alabama cotton producers are eyeing a crop that’s about two weeks early, with yields that won’t be nearly as high as last year, says Dale Monks, Auburn University Extension cotton specialist. Monks reviewed the state’s 2002 cotton crop during the East Alabama Cotton Tour, held in Lee County in late August.

"We have about 590,000 acres of cotton, which is about 20,000 acres less than last year. Of course, last year was one of the best yielding years we’ve seen in some time," says Monks. "The state statistics service has us pegged at about 655 pounds per acre, and that seems fairly accurate."

Weather conditions during October will be the determining factor for many of Alabama’s cotton growers, he adds. "We’ll be watching for things such as tropical weather systems and the possibility of boll rot," he says.

Early planted cotton appeared to fare best during the 2002 growing season, notes Monks. "We had a dry spell from late April to mid-May, and early planted cotton got its roots down and established. That was true for north Alabama and across most of the state," he says.

Most of Alabama’s cotton crop shared the effects of a cold snap in mid-May, he says. "Temperatures reached down into the low 40s in some areas, and some cotton in north Alabama saw as many as three frosts. Cotton was growing well and it was very uniform, but the frost hurt it. In addition to stopping the cotton from growing, the frost made it susceptible to seedling disease and nematode damage."

Growers in north Alabama, just as those in the central part of the state, are having problems with reniform nematodes. Reniform nematode populations have been "off the scale" in north Alabama, says Monks.

"Reniform nematode populations that should have been found in late fall were found in early spring in north Alabama. Cotton has overcome that to some extent because of the temperatures and rainfall they’ve seen since the cold spell."

Since mid-May, it’s been a matter of who has received rain and how much they received, he continues. "Some growers have been overwhelmed with rainfall while some areas still are very dry."

In late August, 39 percent of the state’s bolls were opening compared to the five-year average of 22 percent. About 64 percent of the state’s crop is ranked in the fair to poor category, says Monks.

North Alabama growers were preparing to defoliate in late August, he says, while in central Alabama, the crop’s stage depended upon how much rain was received.

"In the Wiregrass Region of south Alabama, we’ve seen both excellent and poor cotton. If you’re growing cotton on sandy, Coastal Plain soils, you have a chance for a good crop if you receive rainfall or you have irrigation. On the Gulf Coast, some of those growers have received so much rain that controlling growth has been a challenge."

Reviewing cotton insect year

The cotton insect year in Alabama during 2002 can be described best as "wormy" says Ron Smith, Auburn University Extension entomologist.

"We had a normal early season with thrips — it seems as though they’re always heavy. But we learned some things about thrips control this year in our central Alabama tests. We learned that seed size has something to do with the effectiveness of Centric. The larger the seed, the better the Centric performed because there was more product," says Smith.

"We also learned that if you need to treat for thrips with a foliar spray, you can’t be too early. The perfect time for thrips control was when the first true leaves were just putting out, and I had thought we were wasting an application with such an early spray. But that works much better than waiting until a week later before treating," he says.

East Alabama growers didn’t have as much of a plant bug problem as those in north Alabama’s Tennessee Valley due to the moisture situation, says Smith.

"Plant bug pressure is related directly to how well the wild host plants bloom and flourish along the roadside and field borders. Tennessee Valley producers received more moisture in May and June, so they saw more plant bugs."

Growers in south Alabama’s Wiregrass Region and the Florida Panhandle area began seeing worm pressure during the first part of June, says Smith. "It was all tobacco budworms. We wound up with three or four generations. At one point, we had almost six consecutive weeks of constant egg laying from worms.

"We didn’t see worms in east Alabama until mid-July. From that point on, we had a good egg lay, and it was a mixture of budworms and bollworms. They were shifting every week — going from dominating budworms to dominating bollworms, and then back to budworms and then a mixture.

"The significance of this is that the pyrethroids — as in most years — ‘struck out’ on tobacco budworms, and that’s what they’ll do in the future. They’re never going to work again. If we have economic levels of budworms, we must go with the new chemistry, such as Tracer and Steward. Eventually, there will be more new chemistries for budworms, but I don’t know that we’ll see anything better than Tracer or Steward. They’ll run you from $11 to $14 per acre, but that’s your only option if you have numbers of budworms."

In some Alabama cotton fields, especially from Montgomery south, boll damage was significant in conventional cotton, says Smith. Some growers who had planted Bt cotton in the past decided to discontinue planting it because of four to five years of light worm pressure, he adds.

"In many areas, that turned out to be a bad decision. Either growers had to take a lot of damage from tobacco budworms or their spray bill was much more than the technology fee for Bt cotton."

But Bt cotton isn’t perfect on the bollworm species, says Smith. "We’ve seen some fields with up to 5 percent boll damage in Bollgard cotton this year because bollworms will escape. Still, in most cases, it’s not economic damage or you can clean it up with a pyrethroid."

You can never predict what worms will do, he continues. "After four or five years, we thought the budworm was pretty much out of the system. Everyone thought Bt cotton had whittled down the numbers to the point to where there were no survivors. But that’s not the case. They came from somewhere because they were with us in June in some areas, and they stayed with us, cycling in the same fields, generation after generation."

The low spray environment resulting from planting Bt cotton has caused the emergence of the leaf-footed bug, says Smith. Damage from this bug, he adds, is identical to that caused by stink bugs.

"This pest has a long, slender body with a large fan on the back leg that looks similar to an oak leaf. They’re probably a half inch long or longer. You can’t kill leaf-footed bugs with a pyrethroid like you can stink bugs. They’re a late-season pest, and they’re terrific boll feeders."