A long dry spell in late summer, coupled with a root-weakening cool spring and widespread deficiency of potassium, have led to cotton yields in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina that will definitely be down from 2004 and below the five-year average.

But the yield and production estimates for those states in the September Crop Production Report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) may be too low, agronomists say.

At least that is how it appears to Joel Faircloth, Virginia Extension cotton specialist.

“We will be down in production, but I don't know if it will be as low as the USDA is predicting,” he says. “USDA has our yield down from 956 pounds per acre in 2004 to 678 pounds per acre in 2005. While we have areas that will yield less than this projected average due to moisture stress, that would be more than 30 percent, and it just doesn't look that low to me.”

USDA pegs Virginia plantings at 92,000 acres, up 13 percent from 2004, and production at 130,000 bales, down 19 percent from 2004.

“We had a really cool early season, and as a result, cotton planted later in May was able to catch up with early May plantings,” says Faircloth. “But July and August made up for that. It was hot. We wound up with above the 10-year average in heat units.”

Defoliation came up quickly, about the same time that peanut harvest began, Faircloth says. As of Oct. 1, about 75 percent of the crop was defoliated, and a little — at the most 10 percent — had been picked. That is roughly normal progress.

Faircloth has a quality concern about this crop.

“We may see some problem of high mike, due to the extremely high temperatures during the flowering period and the lack of late season moisture,” he says.

The result was a small top crop. “Those top bolls are important to the blend. They are typically low in mike, bringing the overall average down. We will be watching for this,” he says.

A longer range concern for Virginia cotton is the drastic decline in production of peanuts, which have served as an excellent rotation for cotton in this state for many years, says Faircloth. “The end of the peanut program and the drop in peanut acres that followed it have led to an increase in continuous cotton, which we would rather not see,” he says. “Nematodes are going to be a problem if we do that for long.”

Peanuts were a great teaching tool for cotton farmers on the value of rotation. “A long rotation is so important to soilborne disease control in peanuts,” he says.

Faircloth says peanut plantings in Virginia are down about 70 percent from 2001, to about 23,000 acres this year.

In North Carolina, Keith Edmisten, North Carolina State Extension cotton specialist, says cotton farmers have a decent crop.

“There were wide areas both in the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain that didn't get rain for quite a while,” he says. “The dry weather hurt our yield potential, and we don't have much of a top crop. There is some tangled cotton from hurricanes.

“But it seems most areas got enough rain. A few areas affected by hurricanes got too much. We have some tangled cotton from the wind.”

There has also been a problem of potassium deficiency. “We have seen more than I believe we have ever seen, probably because the plants didn't develop a good root system,” says Edmisten.

The deficiency has had a yield impact. “It affects the leaves and makes them yellow, then they don't photosynthesize as well,” he says. “We will have lower yields because of it. Eventually, low potassium will start the defoliation process.”

Defoliation was well under way by Oct. 1, and harvest had just barely started, just a little later than normal, says Edmisten.

Faircloth says there were quite a few potassium deficiencies in Virginia also.

Edmisten is reluctant to make a yield estimate for North Carolina just yet. “We have a lot of good fields and a lot of bad ones. It is very hard to estimate an average,” he says.

The 820,000 USDA estimate of planted acres may not be too far off, he says. “That would be higher than last year but below the five- year average,” he says. The production estimate for the state of 1.35 million pounds may be accurate but Edmisten wants to reserve judgment on that a little longer.

In South Carolina, the USDA estimate is 263,000 acres planted, with a yield of 757 pounds per acre (which is quite close to the estimate for North Carolina of 800 pounds per acre). Production is pegged at 415,000 acres.

Billy Carter, executive vice president, North Carolina Cotton Producers Association, says many of the farmers he has talked to have been pleasantly surprised as they began harvest.

“Most cotton growers thought their yields would be less than they are turning out to be,” says Carter. “Evidently, the dry weather didn't have as much of an adverse effect as it looked like it would.”

Some are picking 2.5 bales and a lot are picking 2 bales, he notes. “Even the fields in the most moisture-stressed areas seem to be picking at least 500 pounds.”

There have been too few bales ginned as yet to indicate what the quality of the crop will be.