What a difference a year can make. This time last year, many Alabama cotton producers were reeling from one of the worst droughts on record. This year, they are breathing a sigh of relief after dodging a serious late-season threat — too much rainfall.

Late August and early September usually are characterized by dry weather, during which fully mature cotton plants dry out so they can be defoliated and prepared for harvest.

That was not the case this year. Heavy rains raised the specter of boll rot, which stemmed from excessively wet conditions during late summer.

Producers even feared for a time that boll rot would deprive them of the drastic rebound they had expected after weathering the severe 2000 summer drought.

Fortunately for most producers, boll rot problems leveled off as drier weather began setting in by mid-September.

“Right now, it's excellent cotton weather. Humidity is low, the air is dry and the sun is shining,” says William Birdsong, an area cotton agronomist in southeast Alabama. “We have incurred some damage from boll rot, but we would have faced disaster if humidity and (tropical storm) Gabriel hadn't turned away.”

In fact, for a time, southeast Alabama cotton producers tracked the movement of Gabriel with mortal dread. They feared the storm would turn north through their region of the state, creating prime conditions for boll rot and other moisture-related problems and dashing hopes for a decent harvest.

As it turned out, Gabriel changed direction just in time, sparing Southeast cotton growers major trouble.

Still optimistic

While some early planted cotton was affected by the initial rainy weather, Birdsong was expecting a good harvest, barring any other unforeseen problems.

Even so, there have been some problems associated with excessively rainy weather, especially in the southwest Alabama counties of Mobile, Baldwin and Escambia.

Hard lock, which occurs when the bolls only open part of the way, has been a persistent problem in this region of the state. So has another moisture-related problem that occurs when cottonseed begins sprouting out of the bolls — a problem that has been especially acute in west-central Dale and Dallas counties.

“With seed sprouting, the bolls just open up and sit there,” says Dale Monks, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System plant physiologist. “Then you get plenty of rain and moisture from hot, humid days, and the seeds (within the bolls) begin sprouting.”

Fortunately for growers in these regions, conditions improved as dry conditions set in by mid-September.

Tennessee Valley producers also appear to have rebounded with a few notable exceptions, says Charles Burmester, an area Extension agronomist in Belle Mina.

“It really depends on where you go,” Burmester says. “We've had pretty good conditions through most of the valley, and in most cases, the boll-rot problem has improved.”

In Limestone County, for example, vastly improved weather conditions have enabled producers to get back to the seasonal chores of defoliating and harvesting.

“Once you remove the leaves, problems associated with moisture are reduced because there is more air circulating around the bolls,” says Curtis Grissom, Limestone County Extension coordinator.

However, farmers in west Lauderdale County have not been so lucky. “Producers were talking about two-plus bale yields just a few weeks ago,” says Ronny Lane, Lauderdale County Extension coordinator. “Now, they're talking about no harvest at all and collecting crop insurance for the damage they've incurred from the rains.”

Huge losses

In fact, Lane says farmers in west Lauderdale County, where more than 70 percent of all cotton in the county is grown, are expecting about as much as a 40 percent loss.

Ample rainfall in other parts of the Tennessee Valley caused regrowth on some plants, making defoliation more difficult.

Even so, with the exception of Lauderdale County, experts remain upbeat about the rest of the region.

“If it weren't for what happened in Lauderdale County, I could give you a pretty good report,” Burmester says. “But even despite what has happened there, we still have good potential, providing we continue to have good harvest weather.”