Late season rains hampered cotton harvest across the upper Southeast, but growers contend it was still a good year and their outlook is even better for 2010.

Gary Respess, a cotton grower and ginner near Washington, N.C., in eastern North Carolina says most of the growers in his area got cotton in before the late fall rains came. Those who didn’t get their cotton out before the rain came generally saw a 300-400 drop in yield, he says.

“We had good quality in most of our cotton last year. Some growers near the coast had minor problems, but we still averaged in the 1,100-1,200 pound range in east central North Carolina,” Respess says.

Ronnie Burleson, who farms in Richfield, in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, says, “We had a real good crop in 2009. The big problem was getting enough consecutive days of good weather to get our cotton out of the field.”

“With our rolling hills, we didn’t have quite the problem with weather-related yield loss, but it definitely affected our ability to get cotton out of the field as early as we would like. Most growers in our area have cut back cotton acres the past couple of years, but they still have the equipment to pick large acreage in a short period of time, so that helped us overcome some of the rain-related problems,” says Burleson, who is President of the North Carolina Cotton Growers Association.

“Our biggest problem was with some of the newer Bollguard II/Roundup Ready Flex varieties. These are good-yielding varieties, but they are new to us and tend to have higher micronaire than we are used to planting. Hopefully, the new 2010 varieties are just as good, but with improved mic qualities,” Burleson says.

High micronaire properties in cotton make a course, thick yarn that can efficiently only be used to make denim, polyester blends and non-woven products. Price penalties are traditionally assessed on cotton that falls outside the parameters of 4.9 for high micronaire and 3.5 for low micronaire cotton.

“Still, we had a real good year. Our whole gin averaged well over two bales on average and good quality,” Burleson adds.

The high cost of technology-containing seed has led some cotton farmers to consider growing conventional or ‘low tech’ cotton in 2010. “The big problem with planting conventional cotton,” says North Carolina Cotton Growers Association Executive Vice-President Billy Carter, “is finding good varieties.”

Growing Bollguard-Roundup Ready varieties is just so much easier and there is a premium price that most growers are willing to pay to be able to be more efficient in their farming operations. These systems have been so successful for so many years that not much research and development has been done on conventional cotton varieties in the past few years, Carter adds.

“In eastern North Carolina, we hear a number of people talking about growing conventional cotton, but I don’t know of anyone actually doing it,” says Respess.

Some of the interest in growing conventional cotton comes from the growing problem of glyphosate resistant weeds. It hasn’t become a widespread problem in eastern North Carolina, but it’s coming, says Respess.

“On our farm, we started seeing resistant marestail first. Now, we are beginning to see what we’re sure is glyphosate resistant Palmer pigweed. It’s not a real big problem in our immediate area, but in other parts of the state, fairly close to us, glyphosate resistant weeds are a major problem,” Respess says.

In the more northern parts of the North Carolina Cotton Belt, Burleson says weed resistance is likewise not a major problem. “We do know there are some suspect weeds on farms around us, but it’s still sporadic. In the middle part of the state between our farm and Gary Respess’ farm, it is a devastating problem for some growers,” Burleson says.

“The whole state has weed resistance issues, but it is a primary problem on Coastal Plain and real light sandy soils, which are more prominent in the middle part of the state,” Carter adds.

For 2010, the North Carolina cotton growers are cautiously optimistic cotton acreage will make a good comeback.

“Sitting here in late January, I would guess we will see an increase of 15 percent to 20 percent in 2010. That’s due primary to price. When prices go below 70 cents a pound, not too many people are interested in cotton. When prices get above 70 cents, lots of folks are interested in growing it,” Burleson says.

Carter says the jury is still out on cotton acreage. The optimism of people right now is that they are going to plant more. Come March and April they are going to look at that price again and decide whether to plant more cotton.

Respess says there is definitely more interest in cotton this winter than last in eastern N.C. “We have people who have never grown cotton before calling us about seed. But like Billy Carter says, when it comes time buy more seed and plant more cotton in March and April that might change.

“We have at least three growers in our area who grew cotton for a number of years, but didn’t grow any cotton last year. This year they have already forward booked cotton, so we know there will be some increase in our area, but we won’t really know until it comes time to plant what the real acreage will be,” Burleson says.

“Most people who have cut back cotton acreage over the past couple of years didn’t sell their cotton equipment. Most who have financial interest in cotton gins didn’t sell their ownership of the gins. So, the infrastructure remains strong for growing cotton throughout the Southeast.

“We have a lot of farmers in the Southeast who have the equipment and the ability to grow a lot more cotton than we are growing now. So, we have good room for growth, but that growth is going to be driven by issues like equipment and labor needs,” Respess says.

Selecting new varieties will be a real challenge for cotton growers in 2010 and beyond Burleson says. “We used to plant the same varieties 8-10 years or more, now two or three years is about all you get with the same variety. You didn’t get any time to evaluate it over a number of years and under a variety of growing conditions.

“I’m not sold on not knowing where the variety came from — the parent varieties. We don’t have access to that information with some of these newer varieties, so we don’t have a real good idea what they will look like and how they react under different conditions.”

The biggest challenge facing cotton farmers specifically, and agriculture in general, is educating the non-farming public and politicians, the growers agree. “It’s not just a farming problem, banks and other businesses in rural areas need for agriculture to succeed to keep rural economies viable,” Carter says.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com