Excessive rainfall in September and October has reduced yield, hurt quality and frustrated cotton harvest efforts in the Mid-South and portions of the Southeast.
USDA’s latest estimates indicate that as of Oct. 18, only a very small percentage of the Mid-South cotton crop had been harvested. Though not as pronounced, delays are evident in some of the Southeast.
For some Mid-South cotton producers, 2009 marks the second year in a row that disaster has struck during harvest season.
In 2008, hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit Louisiana with 30-plus inches of rain and extensive devastation in the region’s cotton, corn and soybean crops. “We harvested the cotton crop, but there were tremendous yield reductions,” said Jay Hardwick, a Newellton, La., cotton producer and chairman of the National Cotton Council.
Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain called the hurricane losses, “the largest natural disaster affecting agriculture, aquaculture, forestry and fisheries in Louisiana history.”
In the fall of 2008, cotton producers affected by the hurricanes, “were in a spiral of economic loss and bewilderment over what to do,” Hardwick said. “We had to reschedule debt and asked Congress for some type of response.”
Not much of a response from government ever came, however, and all growers could hope for was a better year in 2009. The chances were good for a favorable growing and harvest season, if you consider the odds against two catastrophes in a row.
But those hopes went down the drain in 2009, as sub-tropical moisture and other events collided over the Delta in the spring, then sat down like an obnoxious neighbor who refused to leave. The bad weather created an early cotton crop and a late cotton crop coming out of the spring. Today, more bad weather is delaying harvest of the early crop while delaying maturity of the late crop.
Bolls once counted on for yield might not make it into the basket now, especially if the region is hit by a couple of hard early frosts. “We have a tremendous amount of cotton that was planted late,” Hardwick said. “Those bolls appear to have been frozen in time. Normally we have to have substantial heat units and great weather to mature out those last bolls that often can be the difference between making it and breaking it.”
As of mid-October, many cotton producers who should be halfway through a typical harvesting and ginning season haven’t picked a stalk of cotton.
“It’s a mess,” said Hardwick, whose crop on Oct. 16 was 100 percent defoliated and 100 percent unpicked. “The cotton looks like a wet cat hanging on a stalk. Not to make light of it, but as long as you have your health and family, some of these catastrophes that happen from time to time can be worked through. It’s not pleasant by any means, and it is very serious.”
While Hardwick’s cotton plants have a good boll load, he figures that 20 percent to 30 percent “won’t get into the picker basket because of hard lock, boll rot and other factors. I’m thinking we’re at a 30 percent loss, and that’s not mentioning the value of the cotton. Who knows about micronaire and staple.”
Troubles from a stalled harvest season are likely to carry on into 2010, according to Hardwick. “I usually try to be through picking cotton by the end of October to around the first of November, and then have the opportunity to prepare ground for the next year for wheat and double-crop opportunities.
“Now we’re going to have to pick and combine in wet field conditions and create new problems, new expenses and perhaps delayed planting next spring. We’re going to see a decline in economic returns. It’s a huge potential catastrophe in many people’s view.”
In addition, cottonseed may not be in storable condition for dairy producers, according to Hardwick. “It will have to go to the oil mill and sometimes doesn’t provide the most financial return compared to the dairies.”
At this time of the year, Marianna, Ark., cotton producer and ginner Larry McClendon traditionally takes a hunting trip to mark the end of a usually successful harvest. But as of Oct. 19, only 5 percent of his crop had been harvested. “We’re very late, and we have sustained some yield losses already, probably of around 20 percent to 30 percent.
“I won’t know about the quality until we get some cotton graded. It’s been a very difficult year, and unless we have some remarkably wonderful weather, we’re going to continue to suffer through the balance of the harvest season. I think we sometimes forget just how volatile and how extreme agriculture can be.”
McClendon says going into harvest “we had the best crop we’ve ever had. Things just got away from us about two weeks before harvest. We endured about 15 inches of rain in September, and we’ve had about 10 inches in October so far.”
McClendon is hopeful Congress will address the losses with some type of economic relief. “We’re in a situation in the Delta the likes of which I haven’t recalled in 35 years. It’s that difficult. We have discounts, quality losses and yield losses on grains and cotton. I don’t know what Congress will do, but there is a real need here.”
The Southeast region has also been hit hard by the devastating combination of late plantings and a shortened harvest season. Alabama’s harvest is 7 percent complete, compared with the 42 percent average. In Georgia, 8 percent of the acres have been picked, down from the five-year pace of 29 percent.
Vienna, Ga., cotton producer Chuck Coley says a third of the crop in his county (Dooley) was planted June 1 or later. “It’s got a long way to go. It could be a disaster if we get an early frost or if this cotton doesn’t mature out. That 800 pound yield average estimated for the state could drop off considerably.
“I saw one field the other day without any open bolls in it. It could be good cotton, if a frost holds off until the latter part of November. We’re supposed to warm up some next week (week of Oct. 18), but I don’t know if it’s going up to the 80s, which is what we need. An early frost would be a hard hit on any growers with young cotton.”
Yield losses may not be as great in cotton that was planted early, according to Coley, although rain and humidity in late August and early September “caused a lot of boll rot. We don’t know what the yield reduction will be until we get in there and start harvesting.”
Many cotton producers are using open days of sunshine to harvest rapidly deteriorating soybeans and other crops, hoping this will give cotton more time to fluff out and expose more fiber to spindles. But time is getting short. “You never know if you’re going to have another day,” Hardwick said. “It’s a decision every producer is agonizing over every day. It could start raining again tomorrow.”