Turning to cotton data from the Wiregrass region and Coffee County in particular, cotton seems to be much more volatile from year to year, being more sensitive to changing weather conditions, says Zeirden.

“We saw down years in 1980, 1990 and again in 2000, and 2010 was another very bad year.

“We’ve plotted summer rainfall — May through August. In 1970, the rainfall wasn’t that bad, so it tells us that rainfall wasn’t the whole story, or maybe the timing of the rainfall was more critical. There is a correspondence between rainfall and yields, but timing is almost more important than the amount of rainfall. This doesn’t take into account fall and winter rainfall, and the conditions you plant into in terms of soil moisture.”

Last year, during the winter and spring, we were in a moderate to strong El Niño, which is warm water in the tropical Pacific Ocean, says Zeirden. El Niño usually brings winter and spring weather that includes frequent rainfall, winter storminess, cooler temperatures, but abundant or above-normal rainfall.

“For the most part, we saw that in the Southeast last year, and that was good news going into planting season,” he says. “When we got into the month of May, when the influence of El Niño is not as strong, we still had good news with ample rainfall amounts. So we had plenty of winter moisture and rainfall in May. But in June and July, the faucet was turned off. We had 25 percent of normal rainfall for the month of July in southeast Alabama.

“This pattern wasn’t totally unexpected because we’ve seen many times before in the summer, as we come out of an El Niño winter, that June and July can turn drier than normal in the Southeast. We had a couple of tropical systems in the Gulf last year, but all of the rainfall fell on the south side of the storm, which is unusual.”

Rainfall wasn’t the only player last year, says Zeirden. In addition to the lack of rainfall, it was one of the top three hottest summers in the past 100 years in Florida, Alabama and Georgia. This caused high evapotranspiration rates, sucking the moisture from the soil.